ROME -- A new Vatican document excludes from the priesthood most gay men, with few exceptions, banning in strong and specific language candidates "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called `gay culture.'"
The long-awaited document, which has leaked out in pieces over the past few months, was published yesterday in its entirety in Italian by an Italian Catholic Web site, Adista.
The document appears to allow ordination only for candidates who experienced "transitory" homosexual tendencies that were "clearly overcome" at least three years before ordination as a deacon, the last step before priesthood. It does not define what is meant by "overcome." Several critics of the document worried that that language would make it nearly impossible for men who believe their basic orientation is gay - but who are celibate - to become priests.
The anticipation of the document has divided Roman Catholics, especially in the United States, igniting debate over whether this is an appropriate response to the recent sex scandals and whether celibate gay men can still be good priests.
On both sides of that divide, there was general agreement last night that the document presented a strong deterrent to homosexual men applying for the priesthood - but with some limited room for seminaries to make exceptions.
The document puts the onus on local bishops, seminary leaders and the seminaries' spiritual advisers "to evaluate all of the qualities of the personality and assure that the candidate does not have sexual disorders that are incompatible with priesthood."
A candidate for the priesthood, in turn, would have the obligation to be honest about his sexuality.
"It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality, regardless of everything, to arrive at ordination," the document states. "Such an inauthentic attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and availability that must characterize the personality of one who considers himself called to serve Christ."
Vatican spokesmen refused to comment yesterday, saying the document will be published officially Nov. 29.
But an Italian reporter, Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican specialist for Il Giornale, who saw the entire document two weeks ago, said that the posted document matched the one he saw. An anonymous church official was quoted by the Associated Press last night saying that the document - a short five pages with footnotes - was genuine.
While church documents as early as 1961 have banned homosexuals, conservative Catholics complain that the ban has often been ignored while some liberals say the priesthood has been enriched, and amplified in numbers, by gay celibate men.
As such, many conservatives called the document a necessary correction, saying that the number of gay men in seminaries has deterred heterosexual men from applying for the priesthood.
"I don't think it's anything new or different from the church's constant teaching, but it's new in the sense that the teaching has been widely disregarded in seminaries," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, who is editor of Ignatius Press, which published many of Pope Benedict XVI's books before he was elected in April.
The document draws a clear line at banning active homosexuals, and what many experts said was a less clear one in also banning candidates for the priesthood with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," while leaving the term undefined.
Generally, it says, homosexuals "find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from properly relating to men and women."
"It's a clear statement by the Vatican that gay men are not welcome in seminaries and religious orders," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In Good Company: the Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
"It raises the bar so high that it would be difficult to imagine gay men feeling encouraged to pursue a life in the priesthood," he said. "It's a very stringent set of rules they're applying. Really the only people that would be able to enter, according to the document, would be people who had a fleeting homosexual attraction."
But the Rev. Mark Francis, superior general of the Clerics of St. Viator, a religious order based in Rome, said the document appeared to allow the leeway to ordain a candidate who believed he was gay but also believed he could be celibate.
"You could say, `I believe I am gay, but that the tendencies toward being gay are not deep-seated,'" he said.
"What constitutes deep-seated homosexual tendencies?" he said. "How does one judge that?"
Critics of the document complain that by discouraging gay men from applying, it will alter the makeup of the priesthood, and possibly reduce its numbers at a time of an already acute shortage of priests. But supporters maintain that the priesthood needs to change, though Fessio said he worried whether that would actually happen.
"It depends on whether it's implemented or not," he said. "Will it be obeyed? I don't know. I've read a lot of documents in the past that weren't."
The document is marked as signed on Nov. 4 by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department that oversees seminaries. It says that on Aug. 31, Pope Benedict "approved the instruction and ordered its publication."
While the document has been in the works for years, begun under Pope John Paul II, its release marks one of the most significant acts in Pope Benedict's seven months as pontiff.