Vatican close to releasing new statement on gay priests


VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican is preparing to release a document, years in the making, that will bolster the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine against admitting gay men into the priesthood.

Despite an acute shortage of Catholic priests in many parts of the world, church leaders under Pope Benedict XVI are advocating a more careful screening of aspiring clerics to keep out homosexuals. However, rather than the absolute ban feared in some circles, the pope is expected to adopt a somewhat more nuanced approach in the final document.

The Vatican announced in 2002 that a year earlier it had begun revising guidelines on whether gays should be allowed to enroll in seminaries. Officials were responding to two concerns: what some Catholics saw as a growing gay subculture within seminaries and in church life, and the explosion of sexual abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere, in which the majority of the victims were boys.

Pope Benedict has been clear in upholding church teachings that condemn homosexuality as "disordered" and potentially evil, in his decades as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer, and since his election as pontiff in April. He has repeatedly emphasized traditional moral doctrine, condemning same-sex marriages and other perceived crises of values in the secular world.

"We are all very worried about the shortage of priests, but the answer is to improve and strengthen the selection process," Cardinal Julian Herranz of Spain, who oversees the Vatican council for interpretation of legislative texts, said in an interview. "The answer is not to loosen the standards."

The new instructions, expected to be issued with Pope Benedict's approval this month, will update a 1961 prohibition on gays entering seminaries. That ban declared that men of "homosexual tendency" were "not fit" to be ordained.

But indications are that the new document, which will set out more-specific guidelines intended to enforce a rule that everyone agrees has often been ignored, also will leave a small degree of flexibility or discretion.

The final document has not been made public, and the clerics who drafted it have not spoken publicly on its contents, following the Vatican practice of avoiding comment until the pope formally has published any new instructions.

Still, the most reliable reports suggest the following strictures will be included: Men who have been celibate for at least three years, regardless of their sexual orientation, would be eligible for admission to seminaries. In addition to celibacy, they should not have participated in a "gay lifestyle," including the use of books, movies and Internet sites with gay content or gay themes. Nor should they have joined related political activities, such as gay pride marches.

These details were first published last month in Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper, and confirmed in general terms by Vatican officials.

On Friday, the conservative Il Giornale daily, purporting for the first time to quote directly from the document, confirmed the same general outline. It quoted the document, which it said would be published Nov. 29, as saying men with "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" could not be admitted to the priesthood, but allowances would be made for those with transitory homosexual impulses who are celibate.

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, is the senior official in charge of the new instructions. Although he has not commented publicly on the document, he recently expressed concerns to a gathering of bishops that the training and education of priests left something to be desired.

"This formation of seminarians is of maximum importance and must be underlined because of the way [Mass] is celebrated, and the way it is perceived and lived by the faithful, depends principally on the priest," Grocholewski said. "There is still a great deal to be done ... in quite a few seminaries."

Anyone watching the church has been aware for years that the document was forthcoming, but fresh alarms sounded in September when Archbishop Edwin O'Brien said that even celibate homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood. O'Brien, head of the archdiocese for military services in Washington, is in charge of inspections of all U.S. seminaries, so his comments were seen as a warning.

Ahead of the inspections, mandated by the Vatican in the wake of the abuse scandals, O'Brien told a conservative Catholic newsletter that anyone "who has engaged in homosexual activity or had strong homosexual inclinations" need not apply to the ministry. He said there was no statute of limitations.

Although he later said he was expressing his own views and not those of the Vatican, O'Brien's comments triggered fears of a witch hunt.

Many critics suggested that the Vatican was attempting to make gay men scapegoats for the failure of church leadership to better handle the sex abuse scandals, which revealed that senior clerics in several dioceses failed to dismiss abusive priests and instead moved them to new posts.

"This is the worst kind of prejudice," a self-described gay priest wrote in the liberal Catholic weekly Tablet, using the pseudonym Father Paul Michaels for fear, he said, of reprisal.

Critics of the church's policy also have questioned this apparent contradiction: If a priest is celibate, as is mandatory under church doctrine, of what importance is his sexual orientation? A gay priest should be as chaste as a heterosexual one.

But church officials maintain that men training to be priests in seminaries are surrounded by men; for gays, the temptation would be greater than for heterosexuals.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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