A long-awaited "Instruction," due to be released next week, was posted Tuesday on the Internet by the Italian Catholic news agency Adista. A church official who has read the document confirmed its authenticity; he asked that his name not be used because the piece has not been published by the Vatican.
Conservative Roman Catholics who have decried the "gay subculture" in seminaries will likely applaud the policy because it clarifies what the Vatican expects of seminarians and their administrators.
The document from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education says the church deeply respects homosexuals. The document adds that those who practice homosexuality present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support gay culture are not welcome in the priesthood, CBS News correspondent Trish Regan reports.
"Those people find themselves, in fact, in a situation that presents a grave obstacle to a correct relationship with men and women. One cannot ignore the negative consequences that can stem from the ordination of people with deeply rooted homosexual tendencies," it said.
"If instead it is a case of homosexual tendencies that are merely the expression of a transitory problem, for example as in the case of an unfinished adolescence, they must however have been clearly overcome for at least three years before ordination as a deacon."
Critics of the policy warned that, if enforced, it will likely result in seminarians lying about their orientation and will decrease the already dwindling number of priests in the United States. Estimates of the percentage of gays in U.S. seminaries and the priesthood range from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to a research review by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, an author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."
For many gay-rights activists, the Vatican's distinction between deep-rooted and "transitory" homosexuality is without basis.
"For decades now, the scientific and medical community have said that sexual orientation is an immutable trait, what some of us might call a gift from God," said Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
"This new policy causes candidates for the priesthood to be deceptive, and that should not be what the church should be about," he said.
Vatican prohibitions on sexually active gays becoming priests are not new, and a 1961 document says homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood. But the issue came to the fore in 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States.
The hope is that this declaration will stem some of the public backlash that the church has suffered in recent years from the sex-abuse
Scandals, Regan adds.
A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found most abuse victims since 1950 were adolescent boys. Experts on sex offenders said homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to molest young people, but that did not stifle questions about gay seminarians. In addition, some Catholic researchers said "gay subcultures" in seminaries were alienating heterosexuals, prompting them to drop out.