Jamie Manson, a noted queer columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, has entered anew the debate over gay men in the priesthood (reinvigorated after Pope Francis’ most recent comments on the issue) with a striking critique of the language and the ideas church leaders use against gay priests.
Manson described the pope’s comments as “meandering” and “muddled” in her column before focusing in on his use of the phrase “deep-seated [homosexual] tendency” as grounds for denying someone entry to the priesthood. This phrasing first emerged in a 2005 Vatican instructional document on gay priests, which differentiated between “deep-seated” and “transitory” tendencies. Manson explained:
“The instruction doesn’t define precisely what deep-seated homosexual tendencies are, but does declare that they are ‘objectively disordered’ and ‘often constitute a trial.’
“Transitory tendencies, on the other hand, are inclinations that either go away or can be overcome, ‘for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded.’
“‘Nevertheless,’ the instruction continues, ‘such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.’
Manson noted both that the language of “transitory tendencies” seems quite close to “reparative therapy” thinking and that it is language Pope Francis has used previously. Indeed, he reaffirmed in 2016 a Vatican document explicitly barring gay men from being accepted to seminary.
The columnist explored the grounds the Vatican uses to differentiate between two kinds of homosexual tendencies, citing easily discredited, conservative researchers with links to several anti-gay Catholic groups as the only voices making such a distinction. Manson challenged church leaders, asking:
“Is this the kind of junk science that Francis, the bishops, seminary rectors, and members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are relying on to support the barring of gay men from ordained ministry and gays and lesbians from consecrated life? Is this the ‘research’ that is keeping all LGBTQ people from enjoying the fullness of life in their church?”
Manson believes that the pope does endorse such ideas, and though he does not link gay priests to sexual abuse, his words are incredibly damaging. Francis seemingly holds LGBT people to a “special standard of sinless perfection” and believes they are “powerless against their sexual desires.” Then she makes an interesting point about why the pope might take this approach to gay priests:
“The fact that Francis returns to this issue so frequently suggests it is one of his top concerns. The question is why? And why doesn’t he fret nearly so much about heterosexual priests breaking their vows of celibacy?
“Many Vatican insiders predict that at next year’s Synod of Bishops, Francis may attempt to relax the celibacy requirement. He has said more than once that the celibacy rule is changeable. Is the pope’s preoccupation with the celibacy requirement for gay priests his way of shoring up this rule, should the time come that there will no longer be mandatory celibacy? Is he afraid that, when that day comes, gay priests will feel as entitled to sexual love as straight priests?
“Regardless of his motivations, Francis’ characterizations of gays and lesbians and his notion of ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ will only foster the toxic homophobic attitudes that are already so prevalent in seminaries and religious communities, as well as in the wider church. In his attempt to discuss ‘the strength of a vocation,’ he has only weakened what little hope LGBTQ Catholics still have for his pontificate.”
Manson has been one of the pope’s sharpest critics on gender and sexuality issues, and she is correct that Francis’ recent comments were “meandering” and “muddled.” And even more so, her critique of how the Vatican discusses gay priests with derogatory, baseless concepts is well-researched, incisive, and correct. I would quibble with Manson over how negative we should read the pope’s intentions when speaking on gay priests in this latest interview, and my overall assessment of Francis and his reforming efforts is more positive and supportive than hers.
Church observers may debate this point or that question, but the average Catholic is impacted most by mainstream news reports. Headlines like the pope condemning gay priests, whether accurate or not, harm people and cause them to lose hope. That is why Pope Francis cannot afford to be meandering and muddled in his remarks, nor rely on junk science. He has a responsibility to the People of God to educate himself on current scientific and theological understandings about homosexuality and human formation. By doing so, he will hopefully come to understand that gay priests are a blessing to the People of God and make headlines for clearly affirming them in a way which can give so many people greater hope.
New Ways Ministry has re-launched our campaign, “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” to show our support for gay men and religious who faithfully, dutifully, and effectively served the People of God and to call on church leaders to end the falsehoods about and lift the ban on gay priests.
To add your name to this show of gratitude and solidarity, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 20, 2018