Irish Seminary Leaders Defy Vatican Ban, Welcome Gay Men Called to Priesthood

St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

Leaders of Ireland’s main seminary have said they would welcome gay men called to priestly ministry as long as the men remained celibate, a statement that contradicts the Vatican’s instruction banning gay men from being considered as candidates for priesthood.

Fr. Tomás Surlis, rector of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and Fr. Declan Marmion, the school’s dean of theology, made their comments in an interview with The Irish Times:

“Asked whether a gay man who believes he has a vocation and is capable of living a celibate life would be accepted, Fr Surlis responded, ‘I would say, yes. The same issue arises for a man who identifies as homosexual as arises for a man who identifies as heterosexual’.

“Rev Marmion said: ‘I think we all know priests and bishops who are excellent ministers and make a great contribution to the church and society, who are gay but who are celibate. Being frank about it, I think that’s something we shouldn’t be afraid of saying.’

“He said Pope Francis does not have problem with gay priests.* ‘Does he have a problem with deep-seated homosexual tendencies or people supporting and actively involved in gay culture? Yes.’ But this view would also apply where heterosexuals were concerned, he insisted.”

These statements by Frs. Surlis and Marmion are significant because homosexuality at the seminary was a point of controversy just a few years ago. In 2016, anonymous reports from former students complained both that a “gay culture” existed but went unaddressed and that one seminarian was expelled after failing to report classmates who had engaged in same-gender sexual activity. These disputes led two Irish bishops to withdraw seminarians they had assigned to study at the college. Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin explained his decision to remove seminarians was in part due to “a homosexual, a gay culture, and that students have been using an app called Grindr.” [Editor’s note: Grindr is a gay dating app.] Importantly, Martin has been deeply critical of the seminary system itself as well. Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore also withdrew seminarians. Other bishops, however, defended St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

But this controversy in 2016 prompted a discussion in Ireland about gay priests that was in many ways healthy and honest. One columnist at the time said reviewing how priests are formed could ““kickstart an authentic reform and renewal of Irish Catholicism.” These latest remarks by seminary leaders may reflect such an internal reckoning about homosexuality, sexuality generally, and formation issues. The leaders’ other comments in The Irish Times interview on issues of church reform, like lay leadership being a necessity with so few priests, support the idea that such reflection is occurring.

Most significant, however, is that by welcoming gay men to the seminary publicly, St. Patrick’s leaders are defying the Vatican’s ban on gay priests, which was reaffirmed in 2016. These Irish leaders join their German counterparts in this defiance, and they align themselves with the many Catholics who recognize and affirm the good works that gay priests and seminarians offer the church. As regular readers of Bondings 2.0 know, the issue of gay priests is far from resolved, which is precisely why resistance to the Vatican’s discriminatory ban, and the toxic culture it reinforces, remains essential work.

For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of gay men and priesthood, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 17, 2019

2 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    This is a positive step. The closet can be good protection for a time. But longterm, it is unhealthy for a person to have to hide a core part of their personality in order to conform to some institutional requirement. The Irish people were way ahead of Church authorities in their acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships, and in their vote to approve same gender civil marriages. The more that gay seminarians and priests are able to identify openly as gay, the healthier and better it will be for them and for the Church.


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