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The fate of a long-awaited Vatican document on whether gay men should be barred from the priesthood appears uncertain, with one senior Vatican official suggesting it might have been shelved while top American clergy say they understand it will be coming out soon. The future of the document has been further muddied because of the upcoming Vatican evaluation of U.S. seminaries and their admissions criteria--visits that were ordered up in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandals and criticism that gay priests were to blame.
The Vatican press office announced in November 2002, at the height of the sex scandal, that the Congregation for Catholic Education was drawing up guidelines for accepting candidates for the priesthood that would address the question of whether gays should be barred. The document has been controversial from the start, and there has long been speculation that it may never be released because of its sensitive nature. Some priests have said the document is sorely needed, while others say it will do more harm than good, antagonizing existing gay priests and driving others underground.
A senior Vatican official said recent news reports that the document was in the hands of Pope Benedict XVI were "completely wrong" and that there was no news on the topic--implying that the document may have been shelved, at least for now. "There is nothing new," the official said, adding that the Vatican last issued a document on the topic eight years ago and has not done anything since.
A 1997 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments reads, "Admission may not take place if there exists a prudent doubt regarding the candidate's suitability." It does not specify that homosexuality constitutes a "prudent doubt," but a senior American official at the Vatican, the Reverend Andrew Baker, has written that it does.
The chairman of the U.S. bishops' committee on priestly formation, Bishop John Nienstedt, said he had been told by the Congregation for Catholic Education that the document would be coming out soon, and other American churchmen said they too were expecting it. "I don't know where the document is," Nienstedt said in a phone interview Wednesday. "My understanding from the congregation was that it would come out soon."
But with the Vatican-ordered visits of U.S. seminaries starting at the end of September, the document's fate appears even more uncertain. Pope John Paul II called for the seminary visits in 2002 as another response to the sex abuse scandal. Teams of U.S. bishops and seminary personnel chosen by the Vatican will visit all 229 U.S. theology schools, seminaries, and other training institutions, interviewing seminarians and faculty members and reviewing, among other things, the schools' admissions criteria.
The teams will then report back to the Congregation for Catholic Education, which will follow up by drafting an "overall evaluation" for bishops and superiors of religious orders, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement announcing details of the visits. The Reverend John Canary, rector of the largest U.S. seminary, St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., said in an interview he did not think the document would be issued before the visit begins, since new information might be obtained during the evaluations.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Detroit, who has written in favor of gays in the priesthood, said he too is awaiting the document but cautions that it might be rushed out before the visits begin to "preempt" any softening of the policy that might emerge. "Those who want this restriction in would try to get this thing out before the evaluations begin," he said in a phone interview.
Vatican congregations have been studying the issue of gay priests for years, but the matter gained renewed attention in the wake of the sex abuse scandal. Most of the victims were adolescent boys. Experts on sex offenders say there is no credible evidence that gay men are more likely than straight men to abuse children, but several church leaders argued that gay clergy were to blame for the scandal.
Those pushing for a ban on gay priests often cite two Vatican documents that make clear that gays should not be ordained: One, issued in 1961, reads: "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers."
In 2002, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, then prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, advised against allowing gays in the priesthood in a letter that was published in the congregation's publication Notitiae. He said their ordination would be "absolutely inadvisable and imprudent, and from the pastoral point of view, very risky." That letter had been expected to form the basis of the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, but in the years since it was published, Vatican officials have said the eventual policy would be more nuanced. (AP)