That position was initially stated by the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2005, but it was re-stated in a document released on Wednesday.
The new document, however, is hardly restricted to the question of gay priests. It deals with much more, from the value of indigenous and immigrant vocations to the importance of inoculating future priests against infection by “clericalism.”
The new text, titled The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, was dated Thursday, December 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a public holiday in Italy. The full text can be found here.
The section regarding accepting men who experience same-sex attraction draws most of its content from an 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, released by the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2005 shortly after the election of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
“If a candidate practices homosexuality or presents deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director as well as his confessor have the duty to dissuade him in conscience from proceeding towards ordination,” the document released this week says, in a direct quote from the text of eleven years ago.
Just like the previous document was approved by Benedict XVI, the one released this week was approved by Pope Francis. However, in neither case were the documents signed by the pontiff, but by the heads of the Vatican department behind it.
In this case, that means Italian Cardinal Benamino Stella, prefect of the congregation, Archbishop Joel Mercier, Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patron Wong, and Monsignor Antonio Neri.
The document says when it comes to gay men who want to enter the seminary, or discover they have “homosexual tendencies” during the formation years, the 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.’”
It also says that the Church can’t overlook the “negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
The document, again, taking much of its content from the one issued in 2005, makes an exception for the cases in which the “homosexual tendencies” are only “the expression of a transitory problem – for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded.”
In any case, however, the norms indicate that such tendencies have to be overcome at least three years before the ordination to the diaconate.
Since the 2005 document stipulating that men with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ are ineligible for the priesthood, many seminaries and programs of formation in religious orders have interpreted its language to exclude only candidates incapable of celibacy or deeply committed to gay-rights activism, as opposed to a blanket ban on all gay candidates.
It remains to be seen how the recently issued guidelines will be applied.
According to the text’s introduction, the more than 90-page document was prompted by several facts, including the teachings of the last three popes- Francis and his immediate predecessors- who have written extensively on seminarians and priestly formation.
The first draft of the document was written in the spring of 2014, and since then modified with the feedback received from several bishops conferences around the world, that read and reviewed it, along with that of Vatican departments such as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic life, and so on.
Although there are a handful of exceptions, the new guidelines have a global scope, meaning, they’re to be implemented not only by bishops’ conferences but also by religious orders and personal prelatures. However, each country is also expected to produce their own national guidelines grounded in The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.
Here are some of the other highlights from the Dec. 8 document.
First, the text stresses the importance of nurturing indigenous vocations to the priesthood, meaning priests who come from the various local cultures where the Church is present.
“The very presence of such vocations is an important element of the inculturation of the Gospel in these regions,” it says, “and the richness of their culture must be adequately respected.”
“Vocational assistance can be provided in the native language whenever necessary, placing this in the context of the local culture,” the document says.
Second, the document emphasizes the value of vocations arising from within immigrant communities.
“Vocations to the priesthood can arise from within these families,” it says, referring to migrant families, “which must be accompanied, keeping in mind the need for a gradual cultural integration.”
It adds that formation of migrant priests must be done “without underestimating the challenge of cultural differences, which can, at times, make vocational discernment rather complex.”
Third, the document emphasizes that the ultimate aim of any program of priestly formation must be configuration of the candidate to the example of Jesus Christ.
“Priestly ordination requires, in the one who receives it, a complete giving of himself for the service of the People of God, as an image of Christ the spouse,” it says. “The priest therefore is called to form himself so that his heart and life are conformed to the Lord Jesus.”
Fourth, the document calls for a “propadeutic stage” of formation, meaning an introduction to the calling to the priesthood, in part a reflection of the fact that many cultures no longer automatically transmit a sense of the meaning and role of a priest, suggesting that this introductory phase should be at least one or two years.
It specifies that this introductory period should include the sacramental life, learning the Liturgy of the Hours, familiarity with Scripture, mental prayer, spiritual reading, and also study of Church teaching through the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Fifth, on the other end of the spectrum, the document also calls for more attention to ongoing formation, meaning the formation of priests after ordination.
“One must constantly feed the fire that gives light and warmth to the exercise of ministry,” it says, “remembering that the ‘heart and form of the priest’s ongoing formation is pastoral charity,’” quoting St. Pope John Paul II’s 1992 document Pastores Vobis.
Sixth, the document calls on local bishops to play a direct role in both soliciting and shaping vocations to the priesthood.
“The bishop should know how to establish a trustful dialogue with seminarians, so as to enable them to be sincere and open,” it says, recalling that “it is the bishop who is primarily responsible for admission to the seminary and formation to the priesthood.”
Seventh, the document says that dioceses and religious orders must be on guard not to admit potential sexual abusers to the priesthood.
“The greatest attention must be given to the theme of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults,” it says, “being vigilant lest those who seek admission to a seminary or a house of formation, or who are already petitioning to receive Holy Orders, have not been involved in any way with any crime or problematic behavior in this area.
Eighth and finally, in a vintage Pope Francis touch, the document also insists that future priests be inoculated against infection by “clericalism.”
“Future priests should be educated so that they do not become prey to ‘clericalism,’ nor yield to the temptation of modeling their lives on the search for popular consensus,” it says.
“This would inevitably lead them to fall short in exercising their ministry as leaders of the community, leading them to think about the Church as a merely human institution.”
Inés San Martín
December 7, 2016