Did the Vatican Ban Gay Priests or Not?

Since the publication of the Vatican Congregation for Priests’ “The Gift of Priestly Vocation” a few weeks ago, most commentators have noted that the document reaffirms a 2005 ban on the ordination of gay men.  Yet Fr. Louis Cameli, a theologian, wrote an article in L’Osservatore Romanothe Vatican newspaper, this past week in which he says the Vatican document does not issue a blanket ban on gay men being ordained.

[Editor’s note:  Fr. Cameli’s text was originally published in Italian.  An English language translation of his article can be found at the end of an America magazine article which reported on the publication of Fr. Cameli’s thoughts.]

Fr. Cameli believes that the text’s language is nuanced and needs interpretation.   I believe the problem with the Vatican document is that the language is not nuanced, but sloppy, and thus, dangerous.  The problem is not one of subtlety, The authors use terms that are incorrect or that have vague definitions.

For Fr. Cameli, the key language from the 2005 document, which is quoted in this latest text, reads:

“. . . [T]he Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question [‘persons with homosexual tendencies’], 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.’ Such persons find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

The theologian argues that of the three criteria mentioned–practicing homosexuality, possessing deep-seated homosexual tendencies, supporting ‘gay culture–the first and third are clear-cut, with the second one needing some deeper interpretation.

As for the first,  Fr. Cameli notes that since celibacy is required of priests, sexual activity is not permitted.  But the text does not speak of sexual activity but of men who “practice homosexuality.”

But, what does it mean to “practice homosexuality.”  Obviously, the Vatican and Fr. Cameli are using this term to mean sexual activity.  They do not realize that “homosexuality” refers to many more characteristics than sexual activity.  “Homosexuality” also refers to one’s sexual orientation, regardless of whether one acts sexually. Sexuality, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, refers to a variety of factors in a person:  emotions, desires, fantasies, interactions, as well as physical actions.  Being homosexual also involves a large number of social stigmas and pressures to be overcome. So, when is a person considered to be “practicing” homosexuality?  The Vatican document takes this broad term and gives it a narrow definition of  referring to sexual activity.

As for supporting ‘gay culture,’ Fr. Cameli interprets this phrase to mean “an environment and a movement that advocates moral stances at variance with Church teaching.” But this definition is not explicit in the document and does not conform to the way that ordinary people understand “supporting ‘gay culture.”  The mere fact that the Vatican document puts “gay culture” in quotation marks indicates their negative evaluation of the concept.

In fact, gay culture has a lot in common with church teaching:  the values of being true to oneself, of being courageous, of listening to the voice of God within a person, of loving and living as a full human being, and many more aspects.  In such instances, Church leaders should definitely want priests to support gay culture.

The question of what “support” of gay culture entails is also problematic When a pastoral minister reaches out to a gay person, is that support of gay culture?  When a person supports the equality of an LGBT person before the law, is that grounds to deny a person admission to seminary? If a person speaks out against LGBT youth being bullied, would that prevent this person from being ordained?

The Vatican’s imprecise use of language in this document is as dangerous and harmful as the imprecision of the term “objective disorder” to refer to homosexual orientation.  More and more bishops are requesting such language be retired by the Church because of it is misleading and causes negative effects.  Yet, we see that style continues in this latest document.

As for the second criteria, Fr. Cameli acknowledges that the Vatican’s phrase “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” is vague, but he offers four examples of men to whom it might apply:  1) men who consider “being gay” the central factor of their identity; 2) men who are obsessed or preoccupied with their homosexual identity; 3) men whose sexuality creates “a blockage in one’s relational capacities,” meaning that they can’t relate to women well or who relate to men too erotically; 4) men who have a pervasive “sense of inevitability about acting on homosexual inclinations.”

I would agree with Fr. Cameli that such men would not be suitable candidates for the priesthood.  However, I do not see how the term “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be interpreted to apply to the types of men that Fr. Cameli suggests it does.  To most people, “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” would mean the presence of a homosexual orientation, plain and simple.  It does not refer to problems with one’s sexuality.

The cause for the mental and emotional reactions Fr. Cameli describes is not “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”  Instead, such behavior reflects certain men’s lack of maturity in integrating their sexuality into their personality.  These problems can exist in heterosexual priests, as well as homosexual priests.  They are not the exclusive province of homosexuality.

This lack of precision in language raises a question: why doesn’t the Vatican use the term “homosexual orientation”?  Why doesn’t the Vatican state its concern with men whose sexuality is not maturely integrated into their personality, regardless of their orientation?  That would have made this document so much clearer.

If the Vatican did not want to ban gay men from the priesthood, why didn’t they say so in clearer terms?   What gay man reading this document will think that the Vatican welcomes him?

Instead, the Vatican used specifically vague and misleading language that is not understood by the rest of the world.  That is the main fault with this document.  Fr. Cameli blames the media for too blunt an interpretation of this document.  I disagree.  The blame lies with Vatican officials who continue to use antiquated, uninformed language.  They should know better.  For over 40 years, bishops, theologians, pastoral ministers, and lay people have been calling for church officials to use more accurate language about homosexuality.

If church leaders continue to use inaccurate language about homosexuality, the only things that one can surmise from such behavior is that they do not understand the subject they are discussing or they are content with promoting a negative evaluation of LGBT people.  Neither alternative is responsible.

If you would like to show your support for gay priests, you can sign New Ways Ministry’ statement “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” by clicking here. This statement is a wonderful way to let Catholic leaders know that Catholic lay people welcome and support the gay priests in their midst.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 21, 2016


14 replies
  1. larryzb
    larryzb says:

    Wow, so many words on something that ought to be clear and simple to understand.

    By not allowing heterosexual priests to marry, yet tolerating gay priests in its ranks, the Catholic Church is saying or conveying the message that it finds married heterosexuals more offensive than homosexual men in the priesthood.

  2. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    Brilliant rebuttal!

    If Fr Cameli’s article were a ship, it would be listing precariously by now: you holed it right below the waterline.

    Truth to tell, Fr Cameli would be better going down with his ship (saying absolutely nothing further) rather than risk losing more face.

  3. jimcintosh
    jimcintosh says:

    Yada yada yada. The words are pretty clear to me. According to this instruction, the only way a gay man can be ordained is if he represses his sexuality, is straight acting and doesn’t speak up about anything. The problem with this approach is that repressing sexuality was one of the root causes of the abuse scandal. A man will only be formed as a priest in a healthy way if he accepts himself as a sexual albeit celibate person. The Vatican sometimes shows a deep lack of awareness for a group claiming superiority. Following this instruction is just going to lead to more lonely, alcoholic and potentially abusive priests in the future.

    • Loretta
      Loretta says:

      Jim, you articulated the heart of the matter, i.e., “repressing sexuality” because in my experience there are many priests, gay and straight, who seem to manifest a host of unhealthy, inappropriate, demeaning behaviors in working with women. It seems that much of seminary training encourages repressing sexuality. A lot of women could tell their stories of priests acting out of a repressed sexuality and they ain’t pretty.

  4. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Spreading false hope is a terrible wrong to offer to gay men who are discovering their vocation and sexuality likely at the same time. I have seen this happen and the victim ultimately leaves a church that offers a snake rather than a loaf. The words from the Vatican are clear. If the Vatican left any room to accept homosexuality, then current gay priests, indeed current LGBT people would not be terrified to come out publicly. Until the Ratzinger 1986 document is revoked the word from the Vatican is hate.

  5. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Simply, in my opinion, this terrible Vatican document is rife with the bogey man of floodgates that Vatican authorities fear will begin to open up. Concede on “homosexuals” concede on “birth control” etc. etc. Name your bogey man!

  6. Larry
    Larry says:

    I guess we should give Fr. Cameli props for trying but this message from the Vatican is very clear on its face and any gay man reading it will know he is not welcome as a priest so parsing it is of no help. Also, any bishop can use this readily to bar gay men from all ministry. Pope Francis FAILS again to bring healing to the gay community and the Church. “Who am I to judge” is shown to be a fraud.

  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    Yes, the wording is sloppy and yes it is unnecessary and dangerous.

    But I believe that Fr Cameli is correct on how the text is to be interpreted. And we should be insisting that this interpretation be applied and not more rigorously anti-gay interpretation that some are pushing.

    The Christmas shepherds did not pass muster either; their lifestyle conflicted with the law. But still Christ appeared to them first and they became the first apostles; “they made known the message that had been told them about this child.” There is a message in the Christmas story for those who would use the law to exclude those they consider outside the law. God thinks differently.

    Many Blessings

    • Larry
      Larry says:

      We should not urge that Fr. Cameli’s interpretation be accepted since it is still very flawed. We should instead urge strongly that the entire text be withdrawn. And Rome should add an apology as well for issuing it in the first place.

  8. Paul Morrissey, OSA, author of The Black Wall of Silence
    Paul Morrissey, OSA, author of The Black Wall of Silence says:

    Thank you, Francis, for speaking so clearly about a dangerously ambiguous (at best) teaching. I hope and pray that your words will help the Church discuss this document more deeply and that we can assist the Vatican in speaking whatever they wish to speak on this subject more clearly. At least then we can all work for a more humane and informed understanding of the mystery of vocation as a call from God who has always “chosen the weak things of this world that no flesh may glory in his sight.” (and this includes heterosexuals as well of course).

    • Larry
      Larry says:

      I am truly sorry to have to sound so negative but “hoping” that the Church would reach out to gay folks [not to mention clergy] to discuss this document so that they would change their mind is not what I see as any type of reality. I know that the Holy Spirit is real and can work to change hearts but this Church is already calcified when it comes to discussing anything of import with the laity. I had hoped that Pope Francis would have exemplified the Holy Spirit to bring a new light to the Church but the reality is that it is not happening. If we just sit back and hope for a Rome-initiated dialogue, then we will be sitting in the last pew of a very large church for a very, very long time.

  9. Friends
    Friends says:

    Just an interesting side note: all of this fumbling and bumbling by Vatican honcho bureaucrats is taking place under an astronomical/astrological aspect called “MERCURY RETROGRADE”! Google the subject for more information. Pronouncements and decisions and purchases made under this planetary phenomenon — which typically occurs three times a year, and lasts about three weeks each time it occurs — generally turn out to be seriously flawed, and in need of drastic review and revision. Classic illustration: all of Donald Trump’s Presidential Cabinet picks are being made under Mercury Retrograde — and all of them are being met with universal horror, shock and derision. Stay tuned!


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