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Spotlight Report

Gay seminarian ban weighed

Vatican drafting a ruling expected in the next year

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/6/2002

In the midst of a sexual abuse crisis that some conservative Catholics have attributed to gay priests, the Vatican yesterday announced that it is drafting a directive to seminaries around the world addressing the question of whether to bar gay men from pursuing ordination.

The Vatican declined to say which way it will rule, but a variety of church officials, including the pope's spokesman, have said this year that gay men should not be priests, and the Vatican has in the past declared homosexual activity to be ''objectively disordered.''

Vatican officials in Rome told the Associated Press and Reuters yesterday that they would issue a ruling in a letter to seminaries, probably next year.

A ban on gay priests would be a huge change for the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, where most seminaries currently admit gay men as candidates for the priesthood. Although there are no reliable data on the number of gay priests in the United States, most scholars who have looked at the issue say the percentage of gay men in the priesthood is significantly higher than in the general population.

''It should and must be addressed,'' said Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and one of a number of Catholic conservatives who have argued that the sex abuse crisis is about gay priests.

''I think the primary source of this crisis is homosexual activity among clergy which has been nurtured by an atmosphere of pervasive dissent unchallenged by many of our bishops,'' Hudson said.

The Vatican's announcement that it is considering a ban on gay priests was made as Vatican officials are demanding that US bishops drop from their national sexual abuse policy a requirement that allegations of sexual abuse be reported to secular authorities. The Vatican has also pressed for changes to the policy that would protect accused priests.

A Vatican department has been studying the issue of gay priests for several years, but has apparently sped up its work because of the abuse crisis.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops offered no comment on the issue, saying it would wait for the Vatican to issue its letter.

Gay Catholics are upset at the turn of events. Some are planning to protest next week outside a meeting of the US bishops in Washington, D.C., wearing buttons saying, ''Stop blaming gay priests.''

''This is just a horrific move for the Vatican,'' said Marianne Duddy, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization of gay Catholics. ''Gay priests have been serving the church honorably and faithfully for centuries, and for the Vatican to be using the sexual abuse crisis to further its longstanding antigay agenda is decidedly un-Christian.''

The Catholic Church currently has no universal policy on gay priests. In the United States, at least one bishop, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, has said that he bars gay men from seminaries, but most other bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, do not. Applicants to seminaries are asked about their sexual orientation and history, but only as part of an assessment of whether a candidate seems likely to adapt successfully to a celibate lifestyle.

Conservatives often cite a 1961 church document that declares ''Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers.''

But there is no consensus about whether that document remains in effect, according to Charles M. Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation, a canon law institute in Texas.

Some church scholars worry that the shortage of priests would be worsened by a ban on gay priests.

''You have a priest shortage, and you're saying that one group, who may have been feeding half of your priestly population, is not admissible?'' asked the Rev. James F. Keenan, a professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology. ''Healthy, mature, responsible men would then be turned away because of their sexual orientation, and you might also be inviting in people who, not having resolved what their own sexual orientation is, are given a sanctuary to remain in denial or repressed. This would be a very dangerous move.''

The Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, professor of religious studies at John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution in Ohio, said the issue has gained currency because so many victims of clergy sex abuse are adolescent boys.

''There is a growing realization that, when it comes to abuse of teenagers, most of the victims tend to be boys, and that has been a flashing caution light that has been picked up by the Vatican,'' he said.

But Cozzens said it is a mistake to conclude that gay priests are more likely to abuse minors; the pattern, he said, could rather reflect the easier access priests have to boys.

''Should the Vatican bar the admission of gays to our seminaries, it would have a serious impact on the number of candidates preparing for the priesthood,'' he said.

The Catholic Church currently teaches that homosexuality is ''objectively disordered,'' and that gays and lesbians, like all unmarried people, should abstain from sex.

The US bishops, who have generally spoken in more compassionate terms than the Vatican about gays and lesbians, declared in 1997 that ''God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual.''

''God's love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it,'' they said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 11/6/2002.
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