Tuesday, November 29, 2005


The Vatican's recently released document, "Instruction," reiterated its long-standing policy against gay priests. However, it does allow those who have "clearly overcome" homosexual tendencies to begin the process of becoming a priest.

Unfortunately, the Vatican didn't define how they could tell if a candidate for the priesthood had "clearly overcome" their homosexual tendencies. Priests can't date or marry women. That might be a good clue.

Church officials made a distinction between deep-seated homosexual tendencies and what they called "the expression of a transitory problem." In other words, the Vatican believes that some gays can just 'get over it.'

According to the document, "The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the Seminary and to Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture."

But the document said when "homosexual tendencies are only the expression of a transitory problem ... these must be clearly overcome at least three years prior to deaconate ordination." So those who aspire to be priests have three years to prove that they're not gay. Ready, set, go.

The highly anticipated 21-paragraph document, which advises bishops and seminary rectors on how to deal with potential gay priests entering the church, doesn't spell out how the "transitory problem" can be overcome, or how a potential priest can prove he no longer has such tendencies.

Reportedly, the new document reaffirms the church teaching that homosexual acts are "grave sins" which are intrinsically immoral and contrary to natural law. "Therefore, in no case can they be approved," it says.

"If a candidate practices homosexuality or presents deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, like his confessor, have the duty to dissuade him in conscience from proceeding towards ordination," it said.

The document is sure to create controversy in the church. Some will argue that it will root out homosexuality in the priesthood, while others will claim that it will cause gay priests to go underground -- which some say was one of the factors that led to the sex abuse scandal in the first place.

The Roman Catholic Church's policy against homosexual priests goes back to a 1961 document which proclaimed that homosexuals should be barred from priesthood. But the Vatican felt compelled to issue updated guidelines because of the 2002 sex abuse scandal, which involved the abuse of teenage boys by priests.

The scandal had an enormous financial cost and deeply embarrassed the US church. Its reputation and integrity may have been irreparably harmed. In 1972 49% of Catholics reported attending church weekly; in 2000 a mere 26% did. It could be a long time before the Church recovers -- if it ever fully does. Surely the sex abuse scandal wasn't the sole reason for the decline, but it didn't help reverse the trend.

In responding to one of the most sensitive issues facing the Church, the document did not mention men who are already priests but only those entering seminaries to prepare for the priesthood.

That's because beggars can't be choosers.

The number of annual vocations to the priesthood has halved from around 1000 in 1965 to around 500 today. The number of men and women entering religious orders, primarily as nuns or monks, has declined by over 50% since 1965. And as the priesthood has become older, it has also become sparser; there were just under 59,000 priests in 1965, compared to around 45,000 today. The priest shortage is greatly affecting churches around the country; the number of parishes without a resident priest has increased from around 550 in 1965 to well over 3000 today. Apparently, fewer men are hearing "the calling" these days.

That's why church officials in the US allowed the sex abuse problem to fester for so long. They have a shortage of candidates and few other good options. So they just prayed for the predators, hoping their deviant ways would magically go away. Well, all the prayers in the world aren't turning gay people straight either.

Rev. Donald Cozzens, an author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," estimates that the number of gays in U.S. seminaries and the priesthood ranges from 25 percent to 50 percent. But other estimates have ranged from as low as 10 percent to as high as 60 percent.

The flamboyantly gay 70s group, The Village People, wrote campy songs that made light of the places that gay men might like to meet other men - the YMCA and the Navy. They could have just as well written a song called "In the Seminary."

It's little surprise that gay men have flocked to seminaries over the years. Some have tried to hide their sexuality. Becoming a priest would end the tedious, "When are you going to get married?" questions from family and friends. Others surely thought that they could just pray their sexuality away. Clearly that hasn't been working; the Church feels that it has a major problem on its hands. And still others chose to lead a cloistered life that provides lots of male companionship -- and sexual opportunities.

The answer is for the Church is to end the celibacy requirement for priests. Think of all of the worthy and wonderful candidates that are shut out because they want to be sexual beings who can have a wife and children. Married priests could raise other priests. It could become a family business, so to speak. Fathers are often their sons best role models. Priests, well....not exactly these days.

Celibacy leads nowhere -- except to unhappiness and declining numbers. The Vatican may eventually be forced to rethink its policy -- out of necessity.

Celibacy for priests wasn't even required until the Twelfth Century. The rule grew out of concerns for protecting Church property from inheritance. Pope Pelagius I made new priests agree that offspring could not inherit Church property. Pope Gregory then declared all sons of priests illegitimate (daughters couldn't inherit anyway). In 1022 Pope Benedict VIII banned marriages and mistresses for priests, and then in 1139 Pope Innocent II voided all marriages of priests and made all new priests divorce their wives.

The Vatican has always had issues with sex. But it's important to remember that it's comprised of men who aren't sexually active -- and some who never have been. Its hierarchy often seems overly rigid, out of touch, and hypocritical. While the Church teaches that sexual intimacy is designed for procreation (hence the restriction on contraception), infertile couples are still allowed to marry and post-menopausal spouses are allowed active sex lives. And the Church's ban on contraception is leaving many third world countries permanently in the third world, while contributing to the spiraling AIDS rate.

So the Church can issue documents, reaffirm old teachings, and do whatever else it wishes, but that isn't going to get at the root of its problems. They have a priest shortage that is only getting worse, and steadily declining numbers of parishioners. Allowing heterosexual priests to marry might just reverse both trends. Catholics would probably love a less rigid, more open-minded Church. It would certainly increase the pool of qualified, interested candidates to the priesthood. That'd be a great start. Rebuilding their reputation might take a little longer, but that would be another benefit of a much needed change.

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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