Homosexuality and the Seminaries: How to Read the New Instruction

At the end of November 2005, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued an “Instruction Concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies.” Bearing the signature of Zenon Cardinal Grochelewski, the prefect of the congregation, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the instruction is intended to give bishops and seminary rectors guidance in the admission and evaluation of seminary applicants and candidates for Holy Orders. The document was the result of a five-year process of consultation and drafting, involving not only the Vatican Congregation for Education, but also the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The document reiterates what has been the constant teaching of the Church: Homosexual acts are gravely sinful, and homosexual tendencies and desires are objectively and intrinsically disordered. It goes on to explain that one of the central goals of priestly formation is to develop “affective maturity” that enables a man to “relate correctly to men and women” and to develop a “true sense of spiritual fatherhood.” It declares that it is “necessary to state clearly that the Church…cannot admit to the seminary or Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.”

The Vatican instruction again brings to the fore concerns regarding seminary formation that have arisen repeatedly in recent years. Books and articles appearing in the Catholic and secular press have alleged the existence of a gay subculture in some seminaries and a “lavender mafia” of homosexuals in the priesthood. The 2002 clergy sexual-abuse scandal and its lingering effects have confirmed the worst fears of many. At their meeting in Dallas during the summer of 2002, the U.S. bishops asked Rome for a visitation of American seminaries. That visitation began in September of last year, provoking media and dissident reactions characterizing it as a “witch hunt.” Others have denounced it as an assault on gays within the Church or a smoke screen intended to cover up the episcopal errors that led to the sex-abuse scandal.

Apart from the variety of reactions to the document, its release offers a good opportunity to consider the issues of seminary formation regarding celibacy and homosexuality. What does this Vatican document really mean? Is there currently a substantial homosexual subculture within American seminaries? And will the provisions of the instruction be implemented?

How to Understand the Document

According to Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, California, former rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, the key to understanding the instruction is in its early paragraphs, where it mentions correctly ordered relationships. The document states:

The candidate to the ordained ministry, therefore, must reach affective maturity. Such maturity 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.

The suitable candidate for ordination will be able to relate correctly—that is, in a manner consistent with God’s ordering of human nature—to both men and women. Robert Gotcher, associate professor of systematics at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin (not connected with the Michigan seminary), explained that “we don’t relate to other people except as members of one sex or another. You can’t compartmentalize our sexuality away from who we are.”

Our sexual identities as male and female are written into our nature, as it is written in Genesis: “Male and female He created them.” The result, says Mark Latkovic, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is that “our sexual orientation colors how we relate to others,” regardless of whether one is single, married, or celibate.

Vigneron added that the document is pointing out that because the man with homosexual tendencies suffers from a disordered sexuality, his ability to engage in proper relationships is disordered. “A homosexual,” he said, “is not properly ordered to relationships with persons of either sex.”

The reason for this lies within our created human nature. God created man and woman and ordered their natures such that there’s a natural complementarity between them. This complementarity, when expressed in sexual love, is directed toward the creation of new life. Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote in his official statement concerning the instruction that “all human beings are meant to be spouses—either in a lifelong chaste relationship with another, committed to his/her good as husband and wife, or in celibate dignity.”

Because of the complementary and spousal nature of human sexuality, “the masculine identity is ordered to paternity,” said Vigneron. Men are meant by God to be husbands and fathers, and this is “built in” to our nature. “Masculinity is by nature heterosexual,” Gotcher added, because men are ordered to fruitful love by heterosexual attraction to and relationship with the opposite sex. Anything that misdirects or deflects that capacity to love the opposite sex is disordered, because it frustrates God’s plan for human beings to mirror His creative love.

That homosexual tendencies would constitute a deflection or misdirection of this divine intention for paternity is obvious enough. Homosexual desires and acts don’t have the same life-creating capacity as heterosexual ones. Because of the sterile quality of homosexuality, it cannot participate in God’s plan for fruitful human love. A man, as the document says, who either practices homosexuality or has deep-seated homosexual tendencies isn’t suitable for Holy Orders because his masculinity has been disordered to such an extent that he cannot participate in complementary, fruitful, spousal love.

Why It Matters

But there’s an attitude prevalent in our culture that homosexual and heterosexual desires are equivalent. Rev. Stephen Boguslawski, O.P., the rector of the Detroit seminary, explained that “homosexual eros has been equated with heterosexual eros, and they’re not the same thing.” Gotcher also called attention to this problem: Some have come to “see the sexual drive as a neutral force that can be pointed in either direction.” But in the Catholic Tradition, particularly as elucidated by Pope John Paul II in his theology of the body, the sexual drive is ordered to the opposite sex for fruitful love. “We are created as essentially heterosexual,” Gotcher said. “Homosexuality is a disordering, a deflection, of the created heterosexuality.”

But why should the ability to be husband and spouse matter for the priest? Why should this fruitfulness and ordering to heterosexuality be important? After all, the priest is celibate. As long as he’s willing to maintain celibacy, what difference does it make? This attitude is the product of what Rev. Michael Glenn, the rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, called a “minimalistic” view of celibacy. He described this attitude as a “superficial reading of the Church’s Tradition, especially the spiritual tradition,” that sees celibacy as “merely an ecclesiastical discipline.” But, he said, in reality celibacy is a “deep gift, one that is proper to the priestly office…. In the Western Church,” he added, “celibacy is integral to the priesthood. Even in the Eastern churches which permit married priests, there is great respect for celibacy.”

In recent decades, the tendency has been to explain celibacy in pragmatic and functional terms. Some defenses of celibacy—”it makes the priest more available to the people,” for example—actually fall into this pragmatic category. Father Glenn believes that not enough has been done to explain the grandeur of the priesthood. “Priests haven’t been given to properly understand their own identity,” he said. The priest needs to see his celibacy in more than practical terms, as more than a simple sacrifice.

Celibacy isn’t just about self-control; in his chastity, the priest is united with Christ. Jesus is portrayed in Scripture and the writings of early Church fathers as the Bridegroom of the Church. This isn’t merely a metaphor, as Christ is indeed in a spousal, intimate communion with His Church. Bishop Baker described this participation of priestly chastity in Christ as an expression of “his sexuality, not through denial, but through spiritual paternity, living his life as a committed father of his flock, and as one ‘married’ to the Church.”

The priest, Bishop Vigneron said, “is a sacramental presencing of Christ.” As such, he offers his masculine sexuality as a gift—not for mere denial, but for spiritual fatherhood. Because the homosexual man’s masculinity is disordered, it cannot be offered as a gift for spiritual fatherhood in the same way as a heterosexual’s.

The keys, then, to understanding the instruction are the candidate’s capacity to “relate correctly” to members of either sex and his capacity and freedom to offer his masculine sexuality in a spousal relationship to the Church for spiritual fatherhood. Homosexuality is an obstacle in this manner, because the homosexual isn’t able to offer a properly ordered masculinity as a foundation for such a spousal and paternal relationship.

This rationale is an important clarification of the Church’s position. The teaching that homosexuals aren’t suitable candidates for Holy Orders is nothing new—the Church stated in 1961 that “ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality.” What is new is the explanation for why the Church holds this position.

Criticism from an Unexpected Source

While the anger of the Left was predictable, some orthodox Catholics are unhappy as well, since the document doesn’t impose an absolute ban on men who have had homosexual inclinations. The instruction makes a distinction between those with “deep-seated” homosexual tendencies and those whose tendencies are merely “transitory.” It mandates, however, that such transitory tendencies “must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.” Is this a loophole that homosexual candidates can use to slip by?

According to bishops and seminary formators interviewed for this article, the answer is no. First, this “three-year rule” isn’t merely a requirement that the seminarian lives chastely prior to ordination. The instruction clearly speaks of “tendencies” rather than acts or behaviors. Secondly, a requirement for chastity would be superfluous, as seminaries already require this of seminary applicants. “We expect that seminary applicants will have lived chastely for at least two years prior to application,” said Father Boguslawski.

The three-year rule and the distinction between “deep-seated” and “transitory” homosexual tendencies must be understood, said Bishop Vigneron, “in light of the aim of celibate chastity”—that is, spousal self-giving and spiritual fatherhood. The question is whether a man can see himself as a spiritual father. By making this distinction, the Church allows for the possibility of change and growth in maturity.

But the idea that a person could change or grow away from his homosexual tendencies has met with vehement resistance from the homosexual activist community and its allies in the culture, who promote the idea that the homosexual “orientation” is fixed and immutable. The Church, however, has never accepted this idea, and it has been increasingly challenged in recent decades by some within the psychological and therapeutic professions. Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, among others, have pioneered what they call “restorative therapy” (sometimes called “reparative therapy”), aimed at removing the psychological factors that have misdirected sexuality toward the same sex, allowing the patient to live chastely with greater ease and freedom—even restoring the natural heterosexual orientation in some.

Their work and scholarship have been so persuasive that the leader of the movement to normalize homosexuality within the psychiatric community has publicly renounced his judgment that homosexuality is immutable and accepted that homosexual tendencies can be overcome and heterosexual orientation restored. Dr. Robert Spitzer, who led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973, published a paper in October 2003 in which he acknowledged that change in orientation is possible and that restorative therapy is frequently successful—often to the point of allowing the patient to engage in normal heterosexual relationships and even to marry.

Rev. James Gould, the former vocations director for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and frequent commentator on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), said that the Vatican instruction is important in that it “opens the door to reparative therapies and overcoming homosexual tendencies” for seminary candidates. This is a way of “being positive, not fatalistic,” he added. “We have to be grateful that the Church is dealing with the issue of Same Sex Attraction.”

Can Homosexuality Be Repaired?

While the instruction holds out the possibility that a man who has experienced homosexual desires that are not “deep-seated” can attain this maturity, getting to that point will require some hard work.

First, the man must accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality in general, and regarding the disordered nature of same-sex attraction (SSA) specifically. “The first thing he must do is accept that he has a disorder,” said Bishop Earl Boyea, an auxiliary bishop of Detroit and the former rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He “must embrace the fact that [he] has an objective disorder in order to overcome it.” He pointed out, however, that “overcoming those desires does not necessarily mean that they go away” altogether, “but that the candidate is no longer controlled by them.” Secondly, he will have to engage in serious work with a spiritual director, and, in all likelihood, a psychologist or psychiatrist whose outlook is consistent with the Church’s teaching, and who is experienced in dealing with patients struggling with SSA.

This kind of work, according to Father Boguslawksi, is best done outside the seminary. “The seminary is not a therapeutic community,” he noted. The result of such psychological—spiritual work, Bishop Boyea explained, is that the candidate should come to “a peaceful possession of himself” that will enable him to “make an offering of himself to the Church” in a special relationship. In most seminaries men are ordained as transitional deacons at the end of their third year or the beginning of their fourth year of theological study. Since the document provides that any transitory homosexual tendencies must be overcome “at least three years before ordination to the diaconate,” the practical effect of the three-year rule is that the kind of work described here will have to be substantially complete before a candidate begins graduate study in theology.

What is clear in the instruction is that men who are still struggling against SSA are not suitable candidates for admission to the seminary or advancement to Holy Orders. When asked if a man who identified himself as gay or acknowledged present homosexual tendencies was an appropriate candidate for the priesthood, Bishop Vigneron and Fathers Glenn and Boguslawski all answered flatly, “No.” Bishop Boyea explained that a man who is “still struggling” with SSA was not yet ready for ordination. The real difficulty will arise in judging whether a man has truly overcome any transitory homosexual inclinations. “This is a matter of discernment, not policy,” Gotcher said. “That’s why it has to be done on a case-by-case basis.”

Responding to the Scandal

The instruction states that it addresses questions made “more urgent by the current situation.” Some have read the “current situation” to refer to the priest-abuse scandals of recent years. While that’s certainly true to a point, the document isn’t that narrowly focused. In fact, the preparations for it actually began before the scandals broke in 2002.

Rev. Benedict Groeschel is well-known for his books and appearances on EWTN, but he also has wide experience as a psychologist in treating priests and seminarians with a variety of problems, including sexual disorders. Father Groeschel believes that the instruction was prompted in part by the rise of the gay movement and its destructive impact on the priesthood and seminary life. The document specifically mentions participation in the “gay culture” as a disqualifying factor for seminary admission, and Father Groeschel takes this as an important sign: “The real problem is the ‘gay scene,’ or gay culture,” he said. “This is a culture contrary to the New Testament, to Judaism and most other major religions.” Being part of the gay lifestyle and movement, he added, “makes chaste celibacy very difficult, because [that culture is] associated with homosexual practice.” Participation in the gay culture, he said, “is like belonging to a club that encourages getting drunk.”

Father Groeschel believes the document is aimed at “wiping out” the possibility of the gay culture existing in seminaries. “It has no place whatsoever in a seminary,” he said. Just as “kleptomaniacs, liars, and compulsives don’t belong in seminary,” those who “grotesquely advertise their confused sexuality” don’t belong there either.

Father Gould agrees. In past years, many faithful heterosexual men “were scandalized and intimidated by the homosexual element” that developed in some seminaries. By guarding against the possibility of such environments continuing or redeveloping, he believes that the Church will see a rise in the number of men entering seminary, as “young men and their families see that the seminary is a safe and healthy environment.”

The Lavender Mafia

There is no question that gay subcultures were allowed to develop in some seminaries during the 1970s and 1980s. These homosexual cliques arose mainly because some seminary rectors—in the permissive atmosphere of the times—adopted what one professor called an “ecclesiastical don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to homosexuality. However, there’s also widespread acknowledgment that a great deal of progress has already been made in addressing these specific problems.

Both Bishops Vigneron and Boyea related that—in their experience as seminary professors and rectors—they saw no evidence of homosexual subcultures within their own seminaries. Bishop Boyea, however, did add that he was “aware of some seminarians struggling with these issues.” Father Boguslawski and Father Glenn reported similar observations. Latkovic also related that he saw no evidence of a homosexual subculture or clique at Sacred Heart.

Furthermore, interviews with recent graduates of several seminaries confirmed the point. One recently ordained graduate of Sacred Heart Major Seminary said, “There was nothing like a recognizable group of homosexuals…. Occasionally you might observe a man’s behavior and wonder about him, but I never saw anything overt. And as I went along [at Sacred Heart], even the incidence of questionable behavior or mannerisms became less frequent.” Fathers Gould and Groeschel attribute this change to the type and quality of men now entering seminary: “We’re getting the JPII generation of men in the seminary,” Groeschel said, “and they won’t stand for any nonsense.”

While Bishop Boyea agreed, he acknowledged that more needs to be done. “Have we been as strict as we should have? Probably not.” He thinks that seminarians must be given a stronger theological and spiritual grounding so they can embrace and live celibate chastity.

Hiding Their Homosexuality?

A key aspect of implementing the instruction is the identification of seminarians with homosexual tendencies. Fortunately, in the experience of most seminary formators, men are usually honest about such issues. Father Gould related his experience as a vocations director: “I would say to applicants, ‘I’m sorry for asking, but do you have any difficulties with same-sex attraction or homosexuality?”

“Most guys were honest,” he said. “If they didn’t tell me, they’d tell our psychologist.”

Nevertheless, some are concerned that the instruction will drive men with SSA to hide their sexuality. This was not a major worry for the bishops and seminary rectors I spoke with. “A skilled interviewer can uncover these things,” Father Boguslawski said.

In addition, Bishop Vigneron stressed the responsibility of the applicant or seminarian to be honest regarding these issues: “The kind of dishonesty [that such hiding would entail] is evidence of the lack of suitability that the document is talking about.”

Psychological tests used in the past, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index (MMPI) and Rorschach ink-blot tests, were of limited accuracy in identifying homosexuality. But Dr. Fitzgibbons advocates the use of the Boy Gender Conformity Scale, developed at the University of Indiana, and the Clarke Sexual History Questionnaire. In a recent interview with the Zenit Internet news service, he stated that these tests can identify homosexual tendencies with 90 percent accuracy.

The implementation of the Vatican instruction is, ultimately, in the hands of seminary rectors and bishops. Since some of the provisions of the document “rely on prudential judgment,” as Father Boguslawski said, “they can’t be legislated, but rely on having the right people in the right places.” The right people—it should be said—are those who seek to know the mind of the Church on these issues and act accordingly.

“We have to proceed with reverential vigilance and caution,” Father Glenn said. “We have to be very careful and obedient to the Church’s teaching. We have to be rigorous.”


  • Fr. Robert Johansen

    Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds degrees in Classics and Patristics, and also has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, where he is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Sacred Theology. He has presented a number of papers on musical and liturgical subjects at academic conferences, and published articles on the same topics in several academic and popular journals.

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