And also on you
Dear Lord, they're at it again. I am already on record in support of the notion that Roman Catholicism is the authentic version of Christianity and that all of the other sects are cheap knock-offs. I am not, however, blind to the remarkable foibles of the "one true Church." Problems arise pretty much every time the Vatican has to face some developing circumstance that outpaces its geriatric ability to respond. It happened with the Crusades ("We know God is on our side, so eventually we're going to win, right?"), it happened with the Protestant Reformation ("Geez, your Holiness, do you think we should reform before someone else does it without us?"), it happened with Galileo ("The Bible says the sun goes around the earth, right?"), it happened with Vatican I ("Modernism questions the authority of the Church, so let's get in its face and declare our authority infallible!"), and it happened with Vatican II ("Jesus Christ, the people are taking Church reform seriously! Hit the brakes!"). Now it's happening with gay men in the priesthood.
We are all shocked (shocked!), of course, to learn that Catholic priests are perhaps gay in greater proportion than in the general population. For some reason, young gay men appeared to be drawn into an all-male environment where everyone wore dresses and no one was allowed to date or marry women. Surely no one could have anticipated this.
It's easy to offer cheap shots at the Church's expense, so let me take a moment to stipulate a few items. Membership in the Church is voluntary these days, conversion at the point of a sword having been abandoned quite some time ago (which some octogenarians in Rome must fondly refer to as "the good old days"). Hence anyone in the Church's ranks can be regarded as having given at least tacit consent to its policies. Furthermore, like any other organization, the Church has a right to make its own internal rules as it sees fit. (As an aside, I'll mention everyone has a right to fight Church policies whenever they—as they so often do—intrude on the rights of the external society.) To this extent, therefore, I accept that the Church's rules are its own business and no particular concern of mine.
My comments are those of an interested observer, an observer who sees the trustees of his cradle creed in the process of taking another embarrassing tumble. The Vatican has issued a formal policy document (Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Sacred Orders) on whether gays can be members of the Roman Catholic priesthood. While it is certainly late in the day to be addressing this issue, the Church gets to decide what the qualifications are for its priesthood. For centuries the main rules have involved the possession of a penis and the avoidance of its use (except for excretory purposes, naturally). Priests must be men who neither marry nor engage in sexual activity. If these are the rules, then it seems rather pointless to fuss over the sexual orientations of those who aren't supposed to be engaging in any sex anyway. Rome should cheerfully defrock those clerics who violate their vows of chastity, whether immorally with other consenting adults or criminally with minors (the latter also to be subject to prosecution by civil authorities, of course). Orientation is moot. Problem solved!
But that would be too simple and fails to underscore Rome's deep abhorrence of homosexuality (especially in men, of course, since women have long been relegated to second-class citizenship in the patriarchal Church). Instead, however, the Vatican has taken a position that is confusing members of its own hierarchy. They can't even agree whether gays are now banned from the priesthood. The Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., said, "Conservatives will be able to interpret this statement as saying that all gays should be thrown out of seminaries. Or other bishops can interpret it as saying that homosexuals still can be ordained, if they're ready for a celibate life." Of course, if the second interpretation becomes dominant, then the new instruction from the Vatican is nothing but a restatement of current practice. Did Rome mean to maintain the status quo? Permit me to doubt this.
As Father Reese also pointed out in his comments on the Vatican instruction, the document is a relic of an earlier age. It uses old-fashioned terms like "homosexual tendencies" and talks about admitting to the seminary only those men who have "clearly overcome" those tendencies for at least three years. Perhaps "ex-gay" Catholics from the ranks of Exodus International are just what the Vatican ordered (except that so many of them are already in heterosexual marriages to "prove" their conversion to straightness).
What is the Church trying to prove with this new (if uncertain) assault on gay priests and potential gay seminarians? In some quarters, the Vatican instruction is being touted as a bold response to the child molestation scandals that came to light in recent years and have cost the Church dearly in honor, credibility, and cash. If that is indeed Rome's intent, then once again the Church's instincts have played it false. The molestation scandals involved criminal acts involving minors of all ages and both sexes. Most of the victims were boys, but then boys are generally more accessible to priests than girls. To turn it into a primarily "gay" scandal is to miss the essential point of abuse of authority and failure to adhere to the responsibilities that adults have relative to children. Many U.S. bishops and Vatican authorities were unmasked as deficient shepherds of their flocks when they preferred to hide molester priests rather than disciplining and dismissing them. The new instruction on gays in the priesthood is not going to raise the quality of seminarians, but it does pander to some of the Church's worst tendencies in language that reveals a persistent misunderstanding of the nature of sexual orientation. Yes, it's happening again.