Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Spiritual Paternity": Why Homosexual Men Cannot be Ordained Catholic Priests

By Paula Ruddy

The Vatican issued its latest document on homosexuality in the priesthood on Thursday, October 30, 2008, making it clear that homosexuals are barred from being priests by the “paternal” nature of priesthood and/or their inherent lack of “affective maturity.”

At a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski of the Congregation for Catholic Education was asked if homosexuals committed to lifelong celibacy could be ordained. Cardinal Grocholewski said “No,” adding that:

The candidate does not necessarily have to practice homosexuality (to be excluded.) He can even be without sin. But if he has this deeply seated tendency, he cannot be admitted to priestly ministry precisely because of the nature of the priesthood, in which a spiritual paternity is carried out. Here we are not talking about whether he commits sins, but whether this deeply rooted tendency remains. (1)

Cardinal Grocholewski was then asked why a celibate heterosexual can embody a spiritual paternity when a celibate homosexual cannot. He answered:

Because it’s not simply a question of observing celibacy as such. In this case, it would be a heterosexual tendency, a normal tendency. In a certain sense, when we ask why Christ reserved the priesthood to men, we speak of this spiritual paternity, and maintain that homosexuality is a type of deviation, a type of irregularity, as explained in two documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Therefore it is a type of wound in the exercise of the priesthood, in forming relations with others. And precisely for this reason we say that something isn’t right in the psyche of such a man. We don’t simply talk about the ability to abstain from these kinds of relations. (2)

Progressive Catholics have to object to this, but where do we start?

Is the choice of a sexual analogy to describe the relation of priest to church being used to limit the priesthood to those who fit the analogy? If we define the nature of priesthood to require certain biological qualifications, then, of course, everyone who does not fit the requirement is by definition excluded. Why are maleness, heterosexuality, and sexual abstinence inherent in the “nature” of priesthood?

The Cardinal’s theology of priesthood uses the Christ as bridegroom metaphor. It’s an analogy of sexual union between Christ and the Church, with the ordained priest standing in for Christ who begets spiritual life in the faithful. In this analogy, the Church, an abstraction, is female, so priests have to be heterosexual men. The analogy requires that these men be celibate because if priests are sexually active, it is spiritual incest: the “spiritual father” exploiting the trust of the baptized. Homosexual men, and, of course, women of any orientation throw the analogy into further absurdity. Should this analogy control the theology and practice of ordained priesthood?

I guess the unsubstantiated assumption is that the historical Jesus was heterosexual and that his being the “anointed one” of God was somehow dependent on his gender, his sexual orientation, and his having remained celibate. The Cardinal also asserts gratuitously that “Christ reserved the priesthood to men” and he presumes to say why. Is there scriptural evidence for any of these assumptions or assertions?

The Cardinal is interpreting two documents, one issued in 2005, and the other in 2008. (3) These documents were prepared by the Congregation For Catholic Education, of which Cardinal Grocholewski is the Prefect, to supplement the work of the 1990 Synod of Bishops which concentrated on the formation of priests.

The 2005 document specifically addressed the criteria for the ordination of homosexual men. It is only 3 pages long, excluding 3 pages of notes, unusual for a Vatican document. It does say, in no uncertain terms, that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies may not be ordained. It distinguishes homosexual acts from deep-seated homosexual tendencies, but declares both “objectively disordered.” The Congregation, Cardinal Grocholewski signing, says it believes it “necessary to state clearly that 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.”

So how does the 2008 document change the policy? It spells out the guidelines for the use of psychological testing and expert opinions in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood. The emphasis is now not on theology or natural law theory of sexual morality; it is on the “affective maturity” of the candidate for the priesthood. The guidelines require that a candidate be rejected who is “unable to face realistically his areas of grave immaturity. . . Such areas of immaturity would include strong affective dependencies, notable lack of freedom in relations, excessive rigidity of character, lack of loyalty, uncertain sexual identity, deep-seated homosexual tendencies, etc.” Instead of calling for the assessment of the maturity of the individual homosexual man, the policy presumes that his deep-seated tendency has prevented his maturing.

The Congregation has jumped from analogical/deductive reasoning that homosexuality is not compatible with the nature of priesthood to questions of empirical fact. Are homosexuals less affectively mature than heterosexuals? Are healthy ego development, emotional, and moral development determined by sexual orientation? There is no way to know the answer except through well-constructed empirical research. The document cites no evidence for its presumption that homosexuality itself is a sign of immaturity.

Why doesn’t the Church extricate itself from this tortured reasoning? There is no necessity to continue to use the sexual analogy of Christ and priest as bridegroom of the Church. Pope John Paul II in his exhortation following the Synod of Bishops of 1990, Pastores Dabo Vobis, uses other images of Christ’s and the priest’s relation to the Church—head, shepherd, servant. These analogies do not specify gender or sexual orientation.

If we accept a theology of priesthood that defines its “nature” as a relational role within the community of the baptized, then why can’t that role be held by women and men, straight and gay, married and celibate? Why not “spiritual maternity” as well as “spiritual paternity”? Why can’t any baptized person with the requisite cognitive, emotional, moral, and spiritual maturity mirror the love of God for humanity as manifest in Christ? If ability to relate to others is the litmus test, shouldn’t many of the already ordained heterosexual celibate males be looking for jobs?

We asked several men, some of them fathers, to reflect on the Vatican’s declaration that only heterosexual males can fill the paternal role of the priest. Here are some of their responses:

I don’t recall anything about “spiritual paternity,” the Cardinal’s term, in pastoral class in seminary -- in our final year or at any other time anywhere. But then that was a long time ago. The Cardinal’s piece strikes me as another attempt by the Vatican to denigrate gay men as physically, morally, spiritually, and psychologically unfit for Roman Catholic ministry. That we priests should be competent in guilt formation and guilt relief (now that I do recall) seemed to be the focus of seminary education.

- Ed Kohler, St. Paul, former Catholic priest,
retired realtor, married, father of two sons

Do you mean to tell me that God made a mistake when creating my children? How can you refer to my children as “irregulars” and “deviants.” You wouldn’t call someone born blind or without limbs a “deviant” person or an “irregular” person. Why the homosexual?

This made me wonder how I could remain associated with an organization that I have such a fundamental disagreement with. If what the Cardinal says is right, what does it say about our celibate gay priests today? If the church is going to follow its own logic, our gay priests ought to be removed from their ministries and the church should start a campaign to weed out of the priesthood, or at least out of active ministry, all of the gay priests, bishops and cardinals since they are so wounded that they certainly can’t carry out their priestly functions.

- Dan DeWan, North Branch, lawyer,
married, father of two gay sons

I’ve just finished reading The Book of Mychal, by Michael Daly. It’s the story of Father Mychal Judge, the priest/chaplain of the New York City firefighters who lost his life on 9/11 in the collapse of the Twin Towers, and who had come out in a select circle that he was homosexual. His life’s story left me with some very strong impressions, foremost being that with the admission of his being homosexual he also remained celibate as a priest. As a Franciscan friar he exemplified all the values that are the historical hallmarks of this order. Following the model of its founder he became active as a street-priest, being available and open in meeting the needs of those he came in contact with in New York City.

When he became the chaplain of the firefighters he quickly gained their respect and admiration as he never shied away from any of the dangers inherent in this job, taking the same risks as the most seasoned.

But what most impressed me was the manner in which he handled his sexual orientation, especially in the fire station's macho environment. He had admitted to his department head that he was a homosexual. I was impressed by how he lived out this duality in a quiet, non-advertising way, and continued to perform all his priestly duties that were the markings of his life. As his reputation grew from his outreach ministry and his unwavering bravery as a firehouse chaplain was brought to the attention of the church’s hierarchy of New York City, it received a negative reception at the chancery office, especially from the presiding cardinal who, as depicted in this account, was unable to accept all the attention that Father Judge was receiving. It is important to note that this very humble, but openly honest priest, did not seek this attention.

The question that was asked remains: Could I accept an ordained clergy whom I know to be, or have heard to be, homosexual? My response is yes, especially if his public behavior did not openly advertise or flaunt his homosexuality, and if he attempted to perform his priestly duties in the model of Father Mychal Judge.

- Mark E. McCartan, 80, Bloomington, retired educator,
married and father of six sons.

Spiritual paternity was never mentioned in my theological training. At least not that I recall. The implication from the cardinal's viewpoint seems to be that in order to be ordained one has to have the emotional or psychological inclination to want to have (while of course abstaining from) a sexual relationship with a woman with the intention of procreating. Gay men would not have the desire or psychological capacity to engage in such behavior or activity.

Surely the church does not deny the large percentage of gay clergy all the way up the ecclesiastical ladder? The hypocrisy of the bureaucracy must be somehow made known. A theology of priesthood is not marked by sexual orientation, not even by celibacy but by dedicated service in the model of Jesus Christ, plain and simple. How could married apostles be seen as the first leaders in the church if celibacy were a mark of the priesthood?

I am not in the best position to comment on such theology. I only know that I loved priesthood, was very good at it, felt called to it and would still be in it, if the church allowed optional celibacy and recognized its own, nearly inherent, homosexuality. That’s where I am at with that, but I have also moved on and away from all that. As the days, weeks, months and years pass and with the continuing loss of credibility for the Church, especially for the hierarchy, my life has moved on to what is relevant and helpful in my/our journey (I am, after all, not in this alone), and the aloneness was a prime motivating factor for my leaving priesthood.

- Jim Leith, Golden Valley, resigned Catholic priest

Please let us know what you think of the Vatican’s excluding of homosexual men from ordained priesthood by commenting below or by emailing us at

1-2. Quoted in Thavis, J., “Homosexuality and the Priesthood Revisited,” Catholic News Service, October 31, 2008.
3. 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 (2005), and Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood (2008).

1 comment:

  1. You mention Father Mychal Judge, the late New York fire chaplain, who was selectively open about his gay self-identity.

    Even prior to his heroic death on 9/11, Father Mychal was widely seen by many New Yorkers as a living saint for his deep spirituality and his extraordinary work not only with firefighters -- but also with the homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and others marginalized by society.

    While being gay was not his main agenda, Fr. Mychal blessed and supported committed gay relationships asking, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love ?”

    This annoyed the diocesan hierarchy. But like his spiritual father St. Francis of Assisi, Mychal reported directly to a Higher Authority, as evidenced by several medically documented miraculous healings through him.

    When God called Mychal Judge to the priesthood, He had no problem with his being gay, but Rome does. Mychal Judge was about as paternalistically gifted as any priest can be.

    The real explanation for Rome's homophobia lies in the fact that a third to half of priests and bishops are homosexual (Sippes, Couzens), and most of these are closeted and self-loathing; they project their self-loathing onto others. Yet whatever is psychologically pathological can never be spiritually healthy.

    Compare Rome’s unhealthy, self-loathing attitudes toward homosexuality with Mychal Judge’s attitude, when he wrote in his journal about accepting himself the way God made him: “I feel no guilt, none whatsoever today -- I feel on the train Home. I am at peace finally. This is what You want me to do, Lord ... You, You alone, brought me here. I have nothing to fear today. Thank You, thank You, Lord !"

    For further information on Father Mychal, you are welcome to visit: