By William Saletan
SLATE, Posted Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2005
The Vatican's new policy on gay priests has been leaked. Officially, it proposes the incorrigibility of deeply rooted gay tendencies. Unofficially, it exposes the deeply rooted, incorrigible antigay tendencies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI.
For decades, while moderate clerics defended celibate gay priests, Ratzinger pressed for a purge of homosexuality not merely as an act or a lifestyle but as an orientation. Now he's in charge, and he's got ambitions beyond the church. He wants to cleanse us all, inside and out.
To its credit, the Vatican has sought to incorporate modern psychology and biology in its discussions of homosexuality. The first document to do so was the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, issued in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Declaration tentatively accepted that some people were "definitively" gay due to "some kind of innate instinct" for which they weren't "personally responsible." Nevertheless, it maintained that according to scripture, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." The solution was to separate the involuntary from the voluntary—the inclination from the acts—by helping homosexuals to "overcome" their "condition." Eight years later, the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, acknowledging the role of "physiological or psychological factors" in homosexuality, drew the same conclusion.
But in 1986, the CDF changed its tune. In its Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, the CDF said liberals had twisted the meaning of the Declaration, applying "an overly benign interpretation … to the homosexual condition itself," as opposed to homosexual acts. The condition was the problem, said the Letter: When people "engage in homosexual activity, they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent."
Masquerading as a clarification, the Letter turned the Declaration upside down. On the old view, the inclination was disordered insofar as it tended toward the acts. On the new view, the acts were disordered insofar as they "confirmed" the inclination, and the inclination was "essentially" self-indulgent, regardless of its manifestation in acts.
What had happened to the CDF between 1975 and 1986? Ratzinger had taken charge of it. His name, absent from the Declaration, was on the Letter.
But Ratzinger didn't control the whole Vatican, and other departments continued to distinguish homosexual acts from the inclination. In 1990, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes, the first Vatican document on gay priests. It called for the exclusion not of celibate gays but of those who defended a non-celibate life and did "not seem to be able to overcome their homosexual tendencies."
In 1992, Ratzinger upped the ante. In an analysis of Legislative Proposals on the Non-discrimination of Homosexual Persons, the CDF repeated that "the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder" and extended this principle to civil law. " 'Sexual orientation' does not constitute a quality comparable to race, ethnic background, etc. in respect to non-discrimination," said the document. "There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account." The obvious areas were adoption and education, but the CDF sought broader precedents for antigay legislation in housing and employment, noting that "the state may restrict the exercise of rights, for example, in the case of contagious or mentally ill persons." If homosexual orientation was sick and infectious, why should purification stop at the priesthood?
Three months later, Pope John Paul II released the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ratzinger had chaired the Catechism's drafting committee beginning in 1986, the same year he issued the CDF's hard-edged Letter. But the Catechism, unlike the Letter, was a six-year product of "consultation among all Catholic Bishops, their Episcopal Conferences or Synods, and theological and catechetical institutes"—John Paul called it the "symphony of the faith"—and the difference showed. The Catechism dealt with "homosexual acts" and "homosexual tendencies" in separate paragraphs. It framed gay tendencies as a "trial" for their bearers and concluded, "Homosexual persons are called to chastity." This would be hard for them, but it would be morally sufficient. Through "self-mastery" and "prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection," it said.
Other bodies within the hierarchy defended this view against the CDF. In 1995, the Pontifical Council for the Family declared, "A distinction must be made between a tendency that can be innate and acts of homosexuality that 'are intrinsically disordered.' " In 1998, the Congress on Vocations to the Priesthood and to Consecrated Life in Europe said the crucial test for a prospective priest was to be "able to control these weaknesses." The 1998 document, circumventing Ratzinger's 1986 and 1992 pronouncements, invoked the recommendation of the 1990 Directives "to reject not [candidates] who have such tendencies but rather 'those who cannot manage to control such tendencies.' "
Ratzinger never believed such control was possible. Two years ago, under his signature, the CDF examined Proposals To Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. It urged governments to "contain" gay unions "to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defenses and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon." Even in latency, homosexuality, like smallpox, would always be a threat.
Now comes the Instruction Concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons With Homosexual Tendencies, issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education. This is the same Vatican department that said 22 years ago that "homosexuals must be received with understanding and supported in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties." But the new document, unlike the old one, carries Benedict's imprimatur. And its message couldn't be more different.
The Instruction says the church "may not admit to the seminary and Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, show profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture. The above persons find themselves, in fact, in a situation that gravely obstructs a right way of relating with men and women." It says a would-be priest must be turned away if he "practices homosexuality or presents profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies."
Notice two things. First, deep-rooted "tendencies" are now independent and automatic grounds for dismissal, regardless of whether you "practice" homosexuality or "support" gay culture (whatever that is). Second, even if these tendencies are merely a "situation" in which you "find yourself," they "gravely obstruct" you from relating properly to men and women. Through no fault of your own, you're doomed. The Catechism's paths to perfection—self-mastery, chastity, prayer, and grace—no longer suffice. The church won't settle for your self-restraint, even with God's help.
One part of the Instruction permits ordination of priests whose gay tendencies have been "overcome at least three years before ordination." But this rule applies only to immature candidates passing through a "transitory" phase, not those with "deep-rooted" homosexuality. The policy also says it's "gravely dishonest," and therefore disqualifying, to "hide" your homosexuality to get into the priesthood. You're damned if you show it and damned if you don't.
The facile defense of Ratzinger's campaign against gay inclinations in the clergy is that the Catholic sex-abuse scandal proved these inclinations were too dangerous to tolerate. But even if you buy the argument that the abuse stemmed from homosexuality rather than pedophilia and sexual segregation—I don't—it doesn't explain why he targeted gay inclinations in 1986, long before the scandal exploded. Nor is it comforting that his Instruction applies only to priests. As he made clear 13 years ago, if homosexual tendencies are a contagious disease, the infection—and the purge—will go on.