On Dec. 3, The Strength of a Vocation, a book-length interview with Pope Francis by Father Fernando Prado, a Spanish Claretian Missionary, was published in 10 languages.
Father Prado, a theology professor at the Pontifical University of Salamanca, asks 60 questions on a wide range of topics, including priestly, religious and consecrated vocations, but the only subject that made headlines was what Pope Francis said with regard to priests, religious, seminarians and candidates with same-sex attractions.
The context was a conversation Pope Francis said he had had with a bishop who didn’t think it was a problem that several priests in his diocese were “openly gay” because it was just an “expression of affection.” The Pope corrected him, saying, “This is a mistake. It is not just an expression of affection.”
Neither the bishop nor the Bishop of Rome defined what was meant by “openly gay” — whether it meant participation in unchaste homosexual practices or publicly identifying oneself by his same-sex attraction and aligning oneself with the “gay movement.” Whatever the definition, however, the Pope declared, “In the consecrated life and in the priestly life, there is no place for that kind of affection,” meaning, it seems, no place for same-sex sexual activity, same-sex public displays of affection, or affection for the “gay lifestyle.”
With regard to priests and religious engaging in same-sex sexual activity, Pope Francis called them to stop living as hypocrites and make a choice whether to live a Christian lifestyle or one at odds with Christian belief.
“I say to the priests, gay religious men and women,” the Holy Father forthrightly stated, “we must urge you to live fully celibate and, above all, to be exquisitely responsible, trying not to scandalize your communities or the holy faithful people of God by living a double life. It is better that you leave the ministry or consecrated life rather than live a double life.”
Concerning candidates for the priesthood or religious life, Pope Francis said, “Homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates,” adding, “The Church recommends that people with this ingrained tendency not be accepted into the ministry or the consecrated life. The ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.”
“It’s something that worries me,” he continued. “We have to discern with seriousness and listen to the voice of the experience that the Church has. … It may be that at the moment they are accepted they don’t exhibit that tendency, but later they come out.”
For that reason, he said, we must “very much take care of human and sentimental maturity” when training future priests and religious, and “be demanding,” because “in our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable, and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church.”
None of what he said was really new.
With regard to priests not living chastely, Pope Francis has regularly called priests living unchastely either to repent and thoroughly convert or have the integrity to leave. Before the papacy, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said in a book-length interview with Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti that a priest “cannot scandalize a community and abuse the souls of the faithful,” which is why “the great hypocrisy of the double life” cannot be tolerated. In another book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he said that if a priest violates his commitment to chaste celibacy, he tries to “help him to get on track again” through penance and chastity, but that one who proves incapable of observing celibacy must leave.
None of this is a contradiction of Pope Francis’ well-publicized 2013 statement, “Who am I to judge?” There, he was referring to a priest who had been previously caught in homosexual activity whom the Pope implied “committed a sin … [and] repented, sought forgiveness and received it.” Mercy was offered and received.
Pope Francis, however, certainly is one who judges, and judges negatively, as the Church always has, hypocrisy, infidelity to one’s priestly promises, and same-sex sexual activity by priests.
The Church has never considered kicking faithful priests out of the priesthood or faithful religious out of religious life simply for same-sex attractions. But if priests or religious want to identify with that lifestyle or live a double life, the Holy Father is underlining that it is incompatible with what they promised at their ordination.
Concerning candidates for the priesthood and religious life, there is a stricter standard because we are not dealing with those who are ordained or in final vows who have made public commitments in the Church. What Pope Francis said is consistent with the Congregation for Clergy’s 2016 instruction for seminary formation that he approved and ordered to be published. That document, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” reiterated the Church’s positions from 1962 and 2005, emphasizing:
“The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” The reason is because “such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women,” and “one must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
The instruction considers a few different situations.
The first is with regard to those who are engaging in unchaste and sinful homosexual activity or those who are living or promoting a lifestyle in opposition to Church teaching. It would be insane for the Church to ordain those who do not practice what they are called to preach.
Likewise, those who support a “gay culture” — and look at a same-sex lifestyle as something that should be celebrated, either by living it themselves or encouraging those who do — simply are not thinking with the mind of the Church they have sworn a solemn oath to represent.
The second is for those whose same-sex attractions are “ingrained,” “deep-seated” or profoundly rooted, in contrast to “transitory.” The Church recognizes that there is a huge difference between one who experiences some fleeting same-sex attractions — which, because of their ephemeral character, can and “must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate” — and another whose attractions are strong and seemingly a permanent part of one’s self-identity.
The Church has established the bar not at whether a man can practice continence (the abstention from sexual activity), but at whether he is free of what the Catechism calls “intrinsically disordered” same-sex affections.
Does this mean that the Church thinks that someone with same-sex attractions cannot be a good, holy and chaste priest or religious? No. Some are. The question is not whether it’s possible, but whether it is prudent and likely, for there have also been priests with same-sex tendencies who have not served with the same distinction.
For one with deep-seated homosexual tendencies to become a holy priest, for example, he needs much greater humility and has to overcome many more obstacles than a typical heterosexual candidate. For him to believe and teach the Catholic faith, he must be able to say with integrity, “I have a disorder in my emotions and attractions that is not my fault, but which I have to work to overcome.” Otherwise, he will be tempted to conclude that the Church is wrong about her constant teaching on homosexuality, and therefore can be wrong on other matters of faith and morals about which she definitively teaches. Likewise, he must also overcome greater challenges in seminary formation and priestly living.
While it is of course possible with God’s grace for a man with profoundly rooted same-sex tendencies to remain chaste, seminary and rectory living would provide temptations to him that a typical heterosexual seminarian or priest living in those same circumstances would not face. Failure here, too, would be grievous for both the man and the Church.
The scandals of recent months, beginning with former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and exacerbated by the report of the Pennsylvania grand jury, have revealed the problem in the Church of “lavender mafias” in various seminaries, religious houses and dioceses, which has brought this issue of the inadvisability of ordaining those with deep-seated same-sex attractions to the forefront.
The Church has not yet dealt adequately with the reality that four of five cases of the sexual abuse of minors are same-sex in nature; and four of five of those are not of children, but of post-pubescent boys. Many in the Church are in denial that there is any connection between same-sex attractions and activity with adults and the abuse of teenage boys, a connection that the notorious case of McCarrick has plainly illustrated. Whether the denial is ideological or simply a legitimate desire not to scapegoat all priests with same-sex attractions unjustly for the abuse crisis, it has prevented the Church from confronting at its roots the culture of sexual infidelity that allowed the abuse of minors to happen.
The source of the denial of such a connection is a 2010 report by the John Jay College on the causes and context of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the U.S. The report had two methodological flaws. The first was that the authors denied that most priests who molested boys could necessarily be classified as homosexual; the second was that if there were a connection, there should have been a linear growth between priests self-identifying as same-sex-attracted and higher rates of abuse of boys, which they said didn’t exist.
The report, however, examined no data on sexual identification, just some generic estimates. Father D. Paul Sullins, in an important study last month entitled, “Is Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Related to Homosexual Priests?” looked at the available data and showed indeed that the “increase or decrease in the percent of victims who were male correlated almost perfectly (0.98) with the increase or decrease of homosexual men in the priesthood.”
The John Jay College report, however, did provide some data about behaviors that confirmed the wisdom of Pope Francis’ and the Church’s approach to those who have engaged in a same-sex lifestyle.
The study revealed that priests who engaged in same-sex sexual behavior before ordination were significantly more likely (than heterosexuals) to continue to engage in similar unchaste behavior both in seminary and after ordination; priests who identified as gay, bisexual or confused, as well as those with positive views toward homosexuality, were more likely to engage in seminary and post-ordination sexual behavior than those who consider themselves heterosexual or had negative views toward homosexuality; and if priests with pre-ordination same-sex sexual behavior did abuse a minor after ordination, it was much more likely to be a male victim.
Some have tried to accuse Pope Francis and the Church of an un-Christian animus toward those with same-sex attractions, speaking about chastity for one and not the other. The Church indeed calls all priests, religious, seminarians, postulants and novices to chaste celibacy — something that, frankly, everyone knows.
The issue is not that the Church treats heterosexual and homosexual unchaste behavior differently — the Church considers both sinful — but that the Church objectively treats heterosexual and homosexual attractions and “identity” differently, something that is offensive to “gender ideology,” which maintains that same-sex attractions are merely “differently ordered” than opposite-sex attractions.
The Church, however, holds that they’re rather “intrinsically disordered” at the level of their “affective and sexual complementarity,” and that when someone identifies deeply with them, it is germane to the question of fittingness for the priesthood or religious life.
As the Pope candidly affirmed, these matters are indeed highly relevant to the “strength of a vocation.”
Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.