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Homosexual Candidates, the Seminary and the Priesthood

By Fr. Frank Barry and Thomas Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Department of Psychology
Santa Clara University

© 2006 Thomas Plante

Fr. Frank Barry is a pseudonym for a priest and seminary faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous. Dr. Thomas Plante is a Professor and Chair of Psychology at Santa Clara University as well as a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. This article appears with his permission.

On November 29th the Congregation for Catholic Education in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and with the approval of Benedict XVI issued an instruction on the admission of homosexual candidates to the seminary and Holy Orders. The instruction is singular in purpose: "whether to admit to the seminary and to holy orders candidates who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies." The instruction is a document for the entire world and should not be read as addressed only to the church in the United States.

The instruction is clear that active homosexuals cannot be admitted to seminaries or ordination. Neither can those who support "gay culture." Although not defined, this term likely assumes that a self-defined gay man intends to be sexually active and might have a personal agenda in conflict with church teaching. "Gay" came into popular usage in the 1970s and frequently denotes a homosexual person who is sexually active. However, this is not always the case, as "gay" is sometimes used to suggest a homosexual person who embraces their orientation. A homosexual orientation (a word not used in the instruction) was created in 1869 as is defined by Webster's New World dictionary as "sexual desire for those of the same sex as oneself." It usually and only indicates the direction of one's sexual interest, largely dictated by biological, psychological, and social factors.

The instruction makes no judgment on the psychological maturity of individual homosexuals. No priest with a homosexual orientation should feel that this document classifies him as defective. In fact the instruction teaches that homosexual persons "must be accepted with respect and sensitivity" and should not suffer from any sign of unjust discrimination.

Aligning itself with John Paul II's 1992 Pastores Dabo Vobis, the instruction refers to the four integrated and complementary pillars or dimensions of priestly formation (i.e., human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral). Within this understanding, the document highlights "the particular importance of human formation." One aspect of human formation is spotlighted, "affective maturity," that is, the ability to "relate correctly to both men and women." This term finds frequent expression in Pastores Dabo Vobis and means, among other things, "a responsible love" that touches the person in his physical, psychic and spiritual dimensions." Affective maturity assumes that a seminarian and priest bring to all human relationships a serene friendship and a deep brotherliness, with the capacity to renounce anything that is a threat to it. Affective maturity demands that a seminarian and priest be truly a master of oneself, able to be a "sincere gift of self" to all. (nos.43-44) Since affective maturity holds center place in the instruction, the document should be interpreted as a pastoral guideline and not a canonical legislation.

Bishops, religious superiors and seminary personnel are not to admit to the seminary or ordination a candidate who does not demonstrate a stable and affective maturity. Seminary formation is not the time to solve major life issues such as addictive behaviors, sexual issues, financial irresponsibility, or an inability to work cooperatively with others. If a man has serious, unresolved issues or has developed a personal agenda that he might put ahead of the Gospel, he is not a good candidate for ordination. He does not sustain a stable and affective maturity. This norm applies to heterosexual candidates as well.

The instruction places "truth" at the center of priestly discernment. It calls for an assessment of suitability for ordination and places this responsibility squarely on the candidate. He is called to trust the discernment of the church and not be dishonest. This admonishment places an equal responsibility on bishops, religious superiors and rectors to create a formative atmosphere that promotes a climate for this level of truth and honesty. Spiritual directors and confessors have the "duty to dissuade" from ordination candidates who display dishonesty about their sexual tendencies.

A critical point of discernment and judgment is called for in regard to those candidates with a deep-seated homosexual tendency. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1972 document Persona Humana refers to "tendency," making a distinction between a "false tendency" (for example, from bad education, bad example, from habit) and "is transitory or at least not incurable" and a tendency that is definitive due to "some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable." (section VIII) The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise speaks of "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" and names such tendencies as "objectively disordered." (no. 2358)

According to reputable medical literature (e.g., Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 2002), a tendency is characterized by a "direct desire toward individuals of one's own sex" and "involves sexual intercourse between individuals of the same sex." Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary (2002) translates such a tendency to mean "someone who practices homosexuality" and possesses a "characteristic likelihood," a "predisposition to think, act, behave, or proceed in a particular way." Accordingly, the instruction may well be translating a "deep-seated homosexual tendency" in this fashion, indicating that a homosexual candidate who has a profound predisposition which drives him to unwavering homosexual activity cannot be admitted to the seminary or Holy Orders. We know of no bishop, religious superior, rector, spiritual director, or mentor who would disagree.

Discernment must include, then, an assessment between a candidate who experiences "a transitory problem," one who has "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," and one who has a homosexual orientation. Since the instruction calls for a discernment of suitability based primarily on affective maturity, this assessment cannot be known hypothetically, but only personally. If a particular homosexual candidate does not demonstrate a stable affective maturity but is driven by a homosexual tendency, then he should not be admitted. If a candidate's self-identification makes his homosexual orientation personally, socially, and politically decisive, he cannot be admitted. If a candidate's sexual orientation is the central driving element of his life, this will cause him and others problems, will create inner and outer stress, and will affect the unity of the priesthood. This is a source of scandal.

Finally, the instruction does not equate child sexual abuse with having a deeply-rooted homosexual tendency. It cannot be characterized solely as a response to the sexual abuse crisis in the United States. Nor can the instruction be described as an attempt to blame the clergy sex abuse crisis on homosexuals by equating homosexuality and pedophilia. In the U.S., the report from the National Review Board (NRB) as well as the John Jay Study indicated that 78% of clergy sexual abuse cases involved young people 11 to 17, with over 27% involving 15 to 17 years olds. Eighty-one percent of the reported victims were males.

For this reason, the NRB's report called for a "searching inquiry" about homosexuals as candidates for the seminary or Holy Orders due to "the culture today, and the male-oriented atmosphere of the seminary." The report indicates that bishops who chose to ordain homosexuals should first facilitate a "searching inquiry" to discern the possible presence of the sort of tendencies already referenced.

To be a good priest, a man needs a solid human formation psychologically. He needs to be a man of faith and prayer. He needs to be a secure man who fulfills his commitments to the priestly state of life, including a chaste celibacy. He needs to be faithful to the teaching of the church and not let it be diluted by a personal agenda. The accomplishment of all of this is even more God's work than the man's. A man in whom God has accomplished this good work is a good priest. There is nothing that can stop God's grace other than a man's willful refusal to accept it.

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Fr. Frank Barry is a pseudonym for a priest and seminary faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous. Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D. is professor and chair of psychology at Santa Clara University who conducts psychological screening evaluations for a variety of religious orders and dioceses.

Books by Dr. Plante:


Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned
Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned

Sins Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church

Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World

Mental Disorders of the New Millennium
Spirit, Science, and Health: How the Spiritual Mind Fuels Physical Wellness
Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy
Contemporary Clinical Psychology (2nd ed.)
Faith and Health
Faith and Health: Psychological Perspectives

Contemporary Clinical Psychology
Contemporary Clinical Psychology

Getting Together and Staying Together
Getting Together and Staying Together : The Stanford University Course on Intimate Relationships

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