Reflections on the Ordination of Homosexuals
According to recent news reports, Pope Benedict XVI has approved an Instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education which states that men with homosexual tendencies should not be ordained even if they are chaste, because they have a personality disorder which may interfere with ministry. It should be noted that this policy has long been in place, but has been widely ignored in recent decades.
Despite the fact that the policy is not new, its reiteration has prompted inevitable discussion. The Provincial of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, for example, has written to the Jesuits of his province to say that he will do everything in his power to maintain the Jesuit’s practice of admitting men without regard to sexual orientation. Of course, that leaders in various oldline religious communities should adopt this posture is not suprising, given the state of their orders.
But some at the forefront of fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium have also stated that they think the ban is a mistake. According to an interview with moral theologian William May of the John Paul II Institute which appeared in the October 2005 issue of Inside the Vatican, both Courage founder Fr. John Harvey and May himself believe that chaste homosexuals should not be denied the priesthood. Both men have impeccable credentials as far as conforming to the mind of the Church.
The first thing to note about this discussion is that it is a matter of discipline. The Church has not taught that it is impossible to ordain homosexuals in the same way that it is impossible to ordain women. She has not even taught that homosexuality is necessarily an impediment to effective ministry. Though the Church is obviously concerned about this issue, the Magisterium has given no indication that anything doctrinal is at stake. This is a prudential matter about which good Catholics can disagree, and which the Church can handle in different ways at different times.
As a prudential matter, then, three critical issues present themselves for reflection. First, the fact that homosexuality is a certain sort of disorder—in a word, that homosexual activity is unnatural and therefore particularly repugnant—vastly increases the scandal given by homosexual clergy who sin in this particular way. Admittedly this scandal must be weighed against both the demands of equity and the current public perception that discrimination against homosexuals is wrong. Still, the enormity of the scandal of clerical homosexuality among the Catholic faithful can scarcely be overestimated.
Second, while it will be impossible to please the press (which will denounce discrimination with one pen while denouncing clerical homosexual abuse of minors with the other), it is nonetheless true that the chief means employed by the civil order to crucify the Church for this particular sin is to award court settlements which bankrupt whole dioceses. It is not wrong to ask whether more such settlements simply constitute too big a risk to take at the present time.
Third, service in the priesthood means living for significant periods of time with other men. It would be foolish to house heterosexual priests with women because this would be an intolerable strain on their chastity. The same is surely true of housing homosexual priests with other men. I seriously doubt there is a way to avoid this dilemma, especially where community life is the norm.
Finally, regardless of how these issues are resolved, there remains the very real problem of whether homosexuality is a significant impediment to effective ministry. When it comes to the decision to ordain a known homosexual, it goes without saying that the knowledge of his sexual orientation was not gained exclusively in the confessional. Homosexuality alters the normal relationships among men and between men and women; known homosexuality alters these relationships even more. Without attempting to make a doctrinal argument about whether someone with this disorder can adequately stand in place of Christ, one must assume, I think, that at least some impediment to effective ministry is ordinarily involved.
Homosexuality is a heavy cross, and we must be sympathetic to all those forced to carry it. No one should want to add to its weight. But the prudential reasons for refusing ordination to homosexual men are also weighty, and deserve the most careful consideration.
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