Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?

Q: Since we have the right to receive the sacraments, why does the Church now say that homosexual men can’t be ordained as priests? Aren’t their rights being violated? I’m not saying that homosexuals should be ordained, but I’m just wondering how the Church can argue it both ways.  -Will

A: It is quite true that we Catholics have the general right to receive the sacraments. As was discussed in the May 24, 2007 column, canon 843.1 states that the sacraments cannot be denied to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed to receive them, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. While the canon does place some limitations on this right, the fact remains that the right is very real.

The Code of Canon Law states simply that only a baptized male is capable of receiving the sacrament of holy orders (c. 1024). As was discussed at great length in both the December 1, 2007 and March 28, 2008 columns, this effectively precludes women from being ordained. But does this canon imply that any man who feels called to the priesthood has the right to ordination? Let’s first take a look at what both Catholic theology and canon law tell us about conferring the sacrament of holy orders in general. Then we can examine some relatively recent statements from the Vatican concerning the specific question of ordaining men of homosexual orientation to the priesthood.

Along with marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church categorizes the sacrament of holy orders as a “Sacrament at the Service of Communion,” for it is “directed toward the salvation of others” (1534). Those who receive holy orders are meant to use the fruits of this sacrament for the spiritual assistance of others in the Church. In other words, this sacrament is not intended solely for one’s own personal sanctification (although that obviously does play a role). It follows logically therefore that a prospective priest’s ability to interact socially with others is of great relevance.

Consequently, the code is filled with canons pertaining to the suitability of candidates for the priesthood. Canon 241.1, for example, notes that before admitting a man to the seminary, a bishop must take into consideration his human, moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities, his physical and psychic (i.e., mental) health, and his right intention. If, in the opinion of the bishop, a prospective priest lacks the requisite qualities for carrying out his spiritual duties among the faithful of the diocese, the bishop is to deny his request for entry into the seminary. If the man is already a seminarian, and begins to display personality traits or other features which are incompatible with priestly ministry, the seminary rector cannot issue the necessary certificate attesting to the qualities of the candidate for ordination (cf. c. 1051 n. 1). And even if a seminarian has successfully made it all the way through his academic studies and spiritual formation, the bishop is still to deny him ordination if he fails to exhibit the physical and psychic qualities that are in keeping with the sacrament (c. 1029).

The wording of these canons is loose enough to cover a wide range of possible scenarios. Since every person is unique, the diocesan bishop must exercise his own judgment of an individual seminarian’s (or prospective seminarian’s) suitability. There are certainly some legitimate cases in which one bishop’s judgment may differ from another’s. For some time, the issue of homosexuality, or at least of homosexual tendencies, was one on which bishops did not always agree. Some felt that so long as a man does not actually engage in homosexual activity, the mere fact that he feels inclinations in that direction should not, in and of itself, bar him from becoming a priest. Others, in contrast, were adamant that any man with homosexual leanings can never be ordained.

In order to end any confusion, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education — which has authority in matters of seminary training — issued a document designed to clarify the Church’s position on the issue of homosexual men studying for the priesthood. The Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders was approved by Pope Benedict for publication in 2005. By its very nature, it is not an infallible pronouncement; but Catholic bishops and administrators of their seminaries throughout the world are to form their own judgments of prospective candidates in light of its interpretation of Church teaching.

The document reiterates the position of the Catholic Church that homosexuals are to be profoundly respected, as children of God. Nevertheless, it states unequivocally that the Church “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 document goes on to explain that such people “find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women,” and reiterates several times the need for a candidate for the priesthood to reach “affective maturity,” which “will allow him to relate correctly to both men and women, developing in him a true sense of spiritual fatherhood towards the Church community that will be entrusted to him.”

On the surface, it does sound as if the Church is denying the rights of some Catholic men to receive the sacrament of holy orders, doesn’t it? But the Congregation rebuts this point of view in the same Instruction, noting bluntly that “the desire alone to become a priest is not sufficient, and there does not exist a right to receive sacred ordination.” This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s theological understanding of the priesthood discussed above, as a sacrament designed, by its very nature, for the spiritual benefit of others, and not solely for the recipient of holy orders himself. Priestly ordination should not be conferred on a man who is judged by his bishop to be ill-equipped — for whatever reason — to work among Christ’s faithful as a priest.

This theological notion is, in fact, completely consistent with canon 1025.2, which states bluntly that a candidate for ordination must be considered by his bishop to be beneficial to the ministry of the Church. In other words, a man may argue that he is being called by God to the priesthood, but if his bishop feels that he is for some reason unfit, the man cannot insist that he be ordained.

This all ties in perfectly with the assertion seen above in canon 843.1 that Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments, if they seek them at the appropriate time, are properly disposed to receive them, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. A man who is judged by his bishop to be of homosexual inclinations that are significant enough to prevent him from becoming a priest has no grounds to contest the bishop’s decision, and his rights are not being violated in this case.

In taking this position, the Church does not seek to attack homosexual persons. It does, however, find it necessary these days to assert that the homosexual outlook is fundamentally incompatible with the ministerial priesthood. While the Church asserts that homosexuality is disordered and it cannot permit homosexuals to be ordained, it does continue to pray for their spiritual wellbeing — and as Catholics we ourselves should do the same.

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