Here's One Response...
(NOTE: As I've gotten a good many e.mails asking where else this response appeared or with questions about it, the short answer is that this is the only place you'll find it. It was e.mailed heavily, but has not been published anywhere else. I can attest to its veracity.)
-30-Rome and Gays: (2)
A Nuanced Response
Bruce Williams, O.P.
Faculty of Theology, Angelicum, Rome
November 30, 2005
The subtitle of this follow-up reflection carries two meanings: (a) Rome has given a nuanced response on the issue of admitting gay men to the priesthood; (b) the way we read and respond to this new Instruction should be likewise nuanced.
A number of advance comments, based on a leaked text circulated about a week before yesterday’s official release of the Instruction, have picked up on the nuanced language of the document. Other comments have not. The latter group comprises reactions at extreme opposite poles. Among pro-gay and anti-gay advocates alike, several have concluded – whether sorrowfully, angrily, or gleefully – that at least in practice the Instruction totally bans gay men from the priesthood. These commentators either ignore or dismiss as insignificant those elements of the Instruction involving vague language, calling for prudent vocational discernment by candidates and formators in individual cases, and professing respect for the gay men concerned.
Such refusal to countenance nuance is not only unfair to the authors of the Instruction but unhelpful to the task of applying the document in practice. Engagement with nuance is indispensable if we are to follow the sage advice of my esteemed Dominican brother Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of our Order, who urges us to read the Instruction as benignly as reasonably possible (London Tablet, November 26). This would not preclude expressing disappointment with certain statements or omissions in the Instruction. Nor does it mean that we play clever word games so as to invent fictitious nuances that belie the document’s clear intent. The benign reading Fr. Timothy calls for must, of course, be consistent with honesty. But if we ignore or reject nuances that are quite evidently called for in the text of the Instruction itself, our reading of the document is neither honest nor benign. – Frankly, it appears to me that many of the unnuanced readings noted above reflect attitudes either toward the magisterium (on the one side) or toward gays (on the other) that are quite the opposite of benign.
By contrast, readers attentive to nuance have generally concluded that the new Instruction does not expressly or even implicitly require the absolute exclusion of all gay men from the priesthood. Naturally the main focus of these commentators has been on this key passage in the document: “…[T]he 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 expression of profound respect for the persons in question should be accepted as genuine, in line with the over-all benign approach advocated above. As for the description of those held to be unsuitable for priestly candidacy or ordination, let us examine each element in turn.
a. Those who practice homosexuality. This is obvious. Men who are actually involved in unchaste behavior of any kind – here, specifically, genital interaction with other men – clearly are not effectively committed to or preparing for a way of life that demands celibate chastity.
b. Those who present deep-seated homosexual tendencies. Here most commentators have fastened on the expression “deep-seated,” and some have also proposed to nuance “tendencies.” While it is appropriate to raise questions about these terms, it may be even more fruitful to begin by examining the word “homosexual.”
As popularly understood nowadays, “homosexual” (or even “gay”) is apt to refer generically to anyone whose affective sensibilities are mainly geared toward others of the same sex, whether or not those sensibilities are expressed in genital or pre-genital actions or desires. But in documents of the Roman magisterium, consistently and without exception, the word “homosexual” always bears on genital activity. Maybe the clearest example is in Homosexualitatis problema (CDF 1986) where “the homosexual condition” is described as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” (n. 3). The genital reference is likewise clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 2357-2359). I know of no instance in which the magisterium has employed the word “homosexual” merely to describe affective sensibility unrelated to the issue of genital behavior.
Granting the likelihood (as we should) that the meaning of “homosexual” in the present Instruction is consistent with its meaning in all other official Roman church documents, it would follow that by “homosexual tendencies” we are to understand a pattern of “more or less strong” impulses (“tendencies”) toward genital interaction with same-sex partners (“homosexual”). The further qualification “deep-seated” suggests at least that these genital desires are chronic and will likely pose a serious issue for the person throughout his life.
As noted in the first installment of these reflections (October 7), the magisterium supposes that the psychic and spiritual life of such a person is apt to be impaired in various ways. His fragile and precarious interior chastity is seen as evidence of affective immaturity and as impeding him “from relating properly to men and women.” The Instruction then refers without further specification to “negative consequences” of ordaining such persons – perhaps just summarizing the above, perhaps suggesting other unmentioned problems such as the absorption of psychic energy in a perpetual struggle against unchaste urges. All such impairments would foreseeably impede one from faithful and fruitful ministry.
c. Those who support the so-called ‘gay culture’. Here the obvious questions are: (a) what is meant by “gay culture”? and (b) what constitutes “support” for it? Taken in the strongest sense, these terms would denote someone actively involved in gay social/cultural/political activities – an involvement that would normally include being an “out” gay man, whether engaged in homogenital activity or not. The sense of the Instruction might well extend also to some less thoroughgoing forms of “support” for “gay culture,” e.g., political activism in gay causes without significant involvement in gay social life, or vice versa.
I would suggest two more precisions in this regard. First, one might very well be “supporting gay culture” without being gay himself; I personally know some unquestionably “straight” men who are gay-culture supporters at least in the qualified sense just explained. Second, endorsing some particular political objective (e.g., anti-discrimination legislation) should not, of itself, be construed as supporting gay culture; surely there is a difference between promoting a specific political proposal and promoting gay culture as such. The latter would at least suggest an affirming attitude toward gayness in a global sense; and since the magisterium does not share this attitude, it understandably does not want priests to espouse it.
Summing up this whole analysis, the following may serve as thumbnail descriptions of the men who the Instruction says should be excluded from Seminary or Holy Orders:
- genitally active gay men;
- gay men who habitually contend with genital desires / impulses;
- men who define and affirm themselves as “gay” in a way that bespeaks impaired relational ability;
- men who broadly identify with gay sociopolitical interests, even if they do not fall into any of the three previous categories.
These criteria would appear not to exclude a good number of men who might be broadly described as “gay” in common parlance. Consider a man who was homogenitally active in the past and overcame or outgrew this activity in young adulthood. He still experiences warm affection toward men, but homogenital temptations are extremely infrequent and always dismissed quickly and easily. He has never been sexually attracted to women, though he relates normally and even warmly to them also. He does not participate or take an interest in “gay culture,” though he does favor some particular political initiatives aimed at securing civil rights for homosexual people. He is comfortable with who he is by the grace of God, and wants to give himself to the Lord’s service as a celibate priest. He is not “in the closet” about his sexuality, but sexual orientation does not enter into his self-definition; it simply is not an issue in his life, nor is he driven to make an issue of it in dealing with others. Many people might still label such a man as “gay”; he might even accept this designation, understanding it as an acknowledgment of some affectional and lightly erotic but essentially non-genital bearing toward other men. One could argue whether the appellation “gay” is appropriate here; but, as far as I can see, one cannot plausibly argue that this man has “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or “supports gay culture” in the sense conveyed by the new Roman Instruction. (As indicated last month, I would have preferred to see the Instruction include some mention of such men, many of whom serve faithfully and fruitfully as priests.)
Key to this whole line of argument is a distinction between sexuality in its affective dimensions and sexuality in its genital bearing. I acknowledge that this distinction can often be murky in practice and perhaps also to some extent even in theory; but I would also strongly maintain that the distinction is at least vaguely definable in theory and is vividly evident in a good number of practical cases. In heterosexual as well as homosexual contexts, we are all too painfully familiar with sordid scenarios of exploitation and violence illustrating the pursuit of genital gratification devoid of anything resembling love or affection. Conversely there are also clear instances of genuine interpersonal love devoid of any genital interest, though not without significant emotional components that could be broadly designated as “sexual.”
True, in a great many other cases the distinction between genital and non-genital “sexuality” cannot be so neatly drawn. That is one major reason, among several others, why the Instruction must insist on prudent discernment of each person’s vocation – primarily by the man himself, but in a relationship of openness and docility with formators and spiritual directors or confessors. These elements of the Instruction are not just cosmetic; they are essential for a proper application of the norms in question. Is a particular candidate, once actively gay, now safely past any likely reinvolvement with homogenital activity? How frequently and severely does he experience homogenital fantasies or impulses or desires? How does he understand himself as a sexual person? Are there problems in his over-all relationships with men and/or women? How does he relate to “gay culture”? to the sexual teaching of the magisterium? The answers to such questions, and their significance for the candidate’s vocation, cannot be found in a prefabricated formula; they can only be arrived at through a sensitive prudential process.
Approaching its conclusion, the Instruction calls upon aspirants and candidates to be honest with their superiors and counselors, warning that it would be “dishonest” and “deceitful” for one to “hide his own homosexuality” so as to avoid being rejected for ordination. Again it seems evident that “homosexuality” here refers to genital activities or proclivities, or to other psychosexual issues, which present serious doubts about one’s prospects for living chastely or for engaging in wholesome interpersonal relationships such as are requisite for authentic Christian ministry. Rather than reacting against the Instruction’s admonition as though it were an attempt to intimidate candidates, we should understand it as a reminder that honesty – with oneself and others – is an indispensable ingredient in the prudential process of vocational discernment.
At the same time, we may note that the honesty commended here is likely to depend on the candidates’ being assured that the discernment process they are involved in is not one of intimidation but of prudence, for their own good as well as that of the Church. This assurance must include their confidence of being heard and treated with genuine respect and sensitivity. Ideally the process should be one in which the candidate and his formators collaborate in discerning together the appropriate solution to questions that arise regarding a vocation, in light of an honest and thorough examination of all relevant factors. When the factors point to a negative conclusion as to one’s vocation, the Instruction admonishes confessors and spiritual directors to “dissuade” the candidate from continuing. Unmentioned, though not expressly repudiated, is the specific directive from former times that in the event of unchastity confessors were to prohibit the candidate from proceeding toward the priesthood, on pain of denial of absolution, in case the candidate refused to be “dissuaded” and still proposed to go forward. In any case, the Instruction expressly reiterates the obligation of secrecy attaching to any communication in the internal forum.
The reader will have noticed that most of the points raised here do not apply exclusively to candidates who are “homosexual.” Analogous considerations would be applicable, mutatis mutandis, to heterosexually oriented candidates as well. No responsible formator would discern a likely priestly vocation in one who is or has recently been sexually involved with women, or whose energies are significantly taken up with the corresponding fantasies or desires, or who frequents “swinging singles” clubs, or advocates cohabitation, and the like. Again, my previous reflection included a wish that the Instruction would call attention to this.
Why, then, the special focus on homosexuality? A two-fold reply seems warranted here.
The first and simplest one is that the Instruction expressly states, in its Introduction, that it “does not intend to dwell on all questions in the area affectivity and sexuality that require an attentive discernment during the entire period of formation.” It is purposely focusing on “a specific question, made more urgent by the current situation, and that is: whether to admit to the seminary and to holy orders candidates who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Again notice the last phrase here, which we analyzed above in connection with its recurrence in the Instruction’s norms. So, the Instruction does not deny that comparable points would be appropriately applied to the vocational discernment of heterosexual candidates; but it prescinds from these candidates so as to concentrate on a particular current issue connected with an ongoing crisis. This last point, moreover, does not amount to “scapegoating” gay men for the scandal of clergy sex abuse and hierarchical coverup. Its brief mention is no more than an acknowledgment that the scandal has furnished an added occasion for revisiting the “specific question” concerning those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
The second reply admittedly involves some hypothesizing, based on extrapolation from between the lines of the Instruction as well as a consideration of the present cultural and political climate. I agree with others who have speculated that a significant part of the agenda of this Instruction, beyond its stated objective of addressing the need for sound priestly vocational discernment, is to combat the notion – influential within as well as outside the Church – that homosexuality can be a wholesome orientation on a par with heterosexuality. Among a considerable number of Catholics, as well as many others, homosexuality is viewed as a “neutral or even good” variation within God’s creation. Even priests who renounce genital acts or desires by way of a religious commitment to celibacy might support this “overly benign” view of homosexuality as an orientation (cf. CDF 1986, n. 3). A very lucid explanation of why the magisterium frowns on this attitude was offered more than 20 years ago by Fr. Robert Nugent, S.D.S. Nugent himself later ran afoul of the CDF over homosexuality; but here he explains the outlook of the magisterium clearly:“…Many people are opposed to public disclosures of homosexuality among celibates simply because they disvalue not only homosexual behavior on moral grounds, but…also the orientation on psychological, social, and other grounds…. Nor do they believe that a homosexual orientation can fulfill the real meaning of human sexuality in the same way that heterosexuality does. Heterosexuality remains “normative”…. And so if a person believes that a homosexual orientation is “morally neutral,” but still deficient in other ways (lack of procreative possibilities, lack of complementarity, violation of the fundamental sexual differences and symbolism, etc.), he or she will not want to give the impression that a homosexual orientation is as acceptable as a sexual identity, apart from actual behavior, as a heterosexual orientation….”This broader issue is barely hinted at in the present Instruction, though the accompanying commentary in today’s Osservatore Romano – which does not share in the authority of the Instruction itself – is much more explicit here (and generally suggests a more stringent interpretation of the Instruction’s norms than what I have proposed). I stated in my October reflection, and I restate now, that I count myself among those calling for a more open and far-ranging theological conversation in the Church concerning the broader spectrum of issues pertaining to homosexuality. The Instruction does not foreclose such a conversation; it merely takes for granted the received tradition of the Church, and on that basis addresses a “specific question” of current interest. Rather than lament the Instruction’s non-pursuit of the larger issues that underlie its more specific concern, we do better to welcome the practical guidance it does offer and, above all, to take up its call for a discernment of priestly vocations that is characterized by rigorous integrity as well as genuine benevolence toward all persons concerned and indeed toward the Church.
(R. Nugent, ed., A Challenge to Love  264; his italics.)