Celibacy for gays

A copy of the planned statement by the Pope on gay priests has been leaked prior to publication (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4463748.stm). The full text is at http://www.adistaonline.it/congregatio.PDF, but your Italian needs to be better than mine to get all the nuances. What it seems to imply is that candidates for the priesthood will not be accepted if they are gay, regardless of whether or not they are committed to/capable of celibacy. Their orientation alone is seen as preventing them being suitable for the priesthood.

I can see why the Vatican might be panicking in response to all the sexual scandals that have come out recently about abusive Catholic priests. But this ruling seems to me to be sending extremely negative signals to any gay Catholics. All the Vatican claims that they should not be discriminated about ring pretty hollow. The ruling implies that while straight priests can withstand the temptations to break the vows of celibacy, gays cannot. Gays are thus seen not only as ‘objectively disordered’, but implicitly as incapable of celibacy. This view is in odd contrast to the hardline Protestant view, in which straight men can only rarely be expected to be celibate (and hence a married priesthood must be allowed), but gays of either sex must be celibate, since they have no legitimate means of expressing their sexuality.

The Catholic church’s rejection of celibate gays also seems to me to be an historically odd view of celibacy. The point about celibacy is abstention from sex: what you abstain from is secondary. The Desert Fathers knew that women, boys and even the monastic donkeys could be a temptation. (Peter Brown, ‘The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity’ has lots of racy anecdotes, plus very sympathetic analysis of the theology). There are several medieval monks/clerics who have been frequently been suspected as being celibate gays: Aelred of Rievaulx is the most commonly mentioned example.

The real problem, in the end, may be less about sexual orientation than power. There’s an interesting article in the latest London Review of Books on the Irish scandals (see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n23/toib01_.html). Colm Tóibín comments:

When the Ferns Report came out, I was eager to read it because I had known these three men. I had believed that the problem lay in their becoming priests. If they had gone to Holland or San Francisco, I believed, they would now be happily married to their boyfriends. But as I read the report, I began to think that this was hardly the issue. Instead, the level of abuse in Ferns and the Church’s way of handling it seemed an almost intrinsic part of the Church’s search for power.

But for the Catholic church to change its view on the power and status of priests would open a whole different can of worms.


7 thoughts on “Celibacy for gays

  1. Actually, that’s not the case. It, basically, re-iterates what the Church has always taught. The fact of the matter is that gay priests will indeed be accepted by seminaries, but only if they are capable of celibacy – which is the same requirement as for straight men. Straight men are also rejected if they cannot commit to celibacy. Whether gay or straight, the constant teaching of the Magisterium has always been that people in an un-married state are called to celibacy, and those receiving Holy Orders must be able to make a life-long commitment to it also.

    I think that what the Church is actually doing here is sending a message to certain seminaries who have, since Vatican II, employed various psychologists and faculty members who have promoted the actively gay lifestyle amongst seminarians and actually rejected orthodox candidates as being ‘too conservative’.

    I don’t think it’s a reaction to the abuse scandals, I think it’s an orthodox response to the increasingly un-Catholic way in which priestly formation has been carried out over the past few decades.

    Whether you adhere to Catholicism or not, I think we must recognise that a Catholic should at least be Catholic!

    Pax 🙂


  2. Dear Ridgeback,

    Having read the full text of the document now, I think it’s very hard to claim that it allows celibate gays to become priests. It starts by saying:

    The Catechism distinguishes between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies. [It then explains that homosexual acts are grave sins]

    As regards to deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are present in a certain number of men and women, these also are objectively disordered and are often a trial for such people.

    The specific comments on who may be accepted for priesthood are:

    If a candidate is actively homosexual or shows deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, as well as his confessor, has the duty to dissuade him, in conscience, from proceeding towards Ordination.

    What do you think that ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ means if not what is more commonly called sexual orientation? From the earlier section it is clearly distinct from any homosexual acts. If there is a different meaning from the obvious one that being gay, even if you do not act on this, disqualifies you from being a priest, I can’t think what it is. The one exception they allow is ‘homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem, as, for example, delayed adolescence.’ I take that to mean that if a man’s confused about his sexuality, but then decides he’s straight he can be admitted (after a waiting period). But anyone who knows that he is gay still cannot become a priest.

    In one sense this decision is a logical follow-up to the belief that to have a homosexual orientation is to be ‘objectively disordered’; you shouldn’t be ordaining the objectively disordered. But some more liberal Catholics are clearly having to make desperate attempts to see this in an acceptable light. Timothy Radcliffe in the Tablet (http://www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/register.cgi/tablet-01110) says:

    What is it that is meant by a “deep-seated homosexual tendency”?…It could also be interpreted as having a permanent homosexual orientation. But this cannot be correct since, as I have said, there are many excellent priests who are gay and who clearly have a vocation from God. Perhaps it is best understood as meaning that someone whose sexual orientation is so central to his self-perception as to be obsessive, dominating his imagination. This would indeed pose questions as to whether he would be able to live happily as a celibate priest. But any heterosexual who was so focused on his sexuality would have problems too. What matters is sexual maturity rather than orientation.

    It’s a nice idea that this what the Pope means, but frankly it’s not convincing.

    I’m not a Catholic and I’m not in favour of compulsory celibacy for priests (though I admire any Christians who are voluntarily celibate). But I accept that priestly celibacy is the historic Catholic position: what is new is the seeming rejection of any value to the ‘objectively disordered’.


  3. I’m sure banning gays will help the molestation problem greatly. That ought to solve all the problms!

    It won’t do a thing for the centuries-old problem of priests molesting women and girls. The idea that there is some automatic link between homosexuality and paedophilia is nonsense, and should be firmly rebuffed whenever it pops up.


  4. The rule of celibacy in the Catholic Church runs counter to the Scriptures (see 1 Cor. 7:2). If they are to continue this rule then they can’t accept a priest who says “I’m gay” or “I’m straight.” If someone wants to join the Catholic Church then they have to submit to that authority. Even though forced celibacy is unrealistic, as the apostle Paul suggested, the ruling was a fair way to deal with it. The rule of celibacy is the Church’s way of trying to institutionalize the truth that sexuality only distracts from salvation. However, that is something the sinner has to find out for themselves. I recently wrote a commentary on this subject that elaborates more on this view.



  5. Jim,

    Having read your commentary, I think the problem with saying that ‘sexuality distracts from salvation’ is whose sexuality is seen as the problem. I am a heterosexual and I am not particularly proud of this fact, nor do I feel that it is a key part of my identity. But that is because I don’t have a whole culture saying that there is something wrong with me being a heterosexual and religious figures calling my sexual preferences ‘objectively disordered’. Gay pride did not develop in a vacuum: it was a reaction to straight people defining and then denigrating ‘the homosexual’, as someone completely defined by their sexual preferences. Foucault has some interesting stuff on the ninteenth century definition of the homosexual as a medical/psychological phenomenon. But before that there was the invention of ‘the sodomite’ as a creature whose whole being was permeated with the fact of his sexual preferences. If gay people now see their sexuality as a key factor in their identity, it’s because they’ve been taught by straights that this is the case.

    Secondly, sexuality isn’t a problem for the spiritually-minded heterosexual, because they have an acceptable outlet for their desires. You quote St Paul, saying that marriage is needed to prevent fornication. In other words, male and female heterosexuals who cannot control their sexual urges within celibacy (i.e. most of us) have the option of marriage. On the other hand, the Bible allows no acceptable form of sexual activity for gays. If all the sexual activities you desire are automatically seen as sinful, it’s no wonder if you make your sexuality a big deal. When a faithful gay married couple are seen like a faithful straight married couple, as serving the Lord as a unit, then the church can start claiming realistically that sexuality should be irrelevant.


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