In the week since the Vatican released its new "Instruction" on the admission of men with homosexual tendencies to seminaries or to Holy Orders, there has been an impressive amount of commentary on what exactly it means. While the release of a Vatican document is always accompanied by commentators who argue mightily that it does not mean what it in fact plainly says, this time there is some genuine uncertainty about how best to interpret the Instruction — and from quarters which are by no means lacking in fidelity to Church teaching.
The key passage says that "those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture' should not be admitted to seminaries or ordained priests."
The first and third categories seem clear enough. A man who is sexually active with others — men or women — clearly cannot be admitted to the seminary unless and until he has learned to live chastely. As for the "gay culture," it seems obvious that a potential priest cannot support initiatives which encourage homosexual acts, or even the affirmation of the homosexual orientation as something good in itself.
What does "deep-seated" mean?
That leaves the second category: "those who present deep-seated homosexual tendencies."
The first thing to be observed is that the language chosen — after some five years or more of consideration — does not define a "deep-seated" homosexual tendency. It also seems reasonable to conclude that a homosexual tendency which is not "deep-seated" does not constitute a barrier to Holy Orders.
The Instruction makes it clear that bishops, seminary rectors, spiritual directors, and confessors are to make this determination. So, speaking only for myself, how would I apply the distinction between what is deep-seated and what is not?
Given the adolescent environment in North America today, it is not surprising that young men who are not in fact homosexual might have experienced homosexual tendencies. A youth culture of sexual libertinism, coupled with an assertive promotion of the gay culture in both high schools and on university campuses, makes this a growing phenomenon.
In a different way, this may also apply to places in the world where boys enter preparatory seminaries at a young age. A teenage boy who enters the all-male environment of a seminary, and lives his entire adolescence in such an environment, may experience homosexual tendencies. This is not due to a libertine environment (!) but simply the fact that the male sexual appetite is attracted by what it sees, and in an all-male environment what is seen is other men.
In such cases, it would seem that these tendencies are of the "transitory" nature which the Instruction indicates do not constitute a barrier to ordination if they are overcome for a period of time (three years).
The more difficult case is the man who experiences homosexual tendencies for a prolonged period of time, but lives chastely, unequivocally accepts the Church's teaching that the homosexual orientation is disordered, and, moreover, wishes to be free of homosexual tendencies. Does such a man have the "deep-seated" tendencies which are a barrier to seminary admission?
Different answers could be given.
A plausible reading of the Instruction is that "deep-seated" is opposed to "transitory," meaning that a homosexual tendency which endures for a prolonged period is "deep-seated." Some commentators have said that the Instruction judges such men unsuitable for admission to the seminary. If the tendency is enduring, it is therefore disqualifying.
I would answer slightly differently. I think "deep-seated" can plausibly be read as referring to how "deep" the tendency is rooted in the personality.
If a man habitually sees the men around him as objects of sexual desire, that would be a "deep-seated" tendency that would "hinder [him] from relating correctly to men and women," as the Instruction puts it. If the man understands himself in terms of his homosexual tendencies or orientation, that would also be a "deep-seated" phenomenon, as the personality itself is understood in reference to what is a disordered orientation.
It seems clear that the Instruction rejects as unsuitable for the priesthood those whose identity is defined by what Catholic doctrine regards as a disordered sexual tendency. It could hardly be otherwise — a man who defines his identity in relation to homosexuality would be defining himself in terms directly contrary to the Christian sexual ethic.