Vatican instruction on homosexuality and priestly formation

I’ve been carefully reading the commentary that has been filtering in on the latest Vatican document on homosexuality and priestly formation. Some Catholic priests have resigned (good riddance), some have thrown their hands up in disgust, and others have praised the document for its tone.

The full text of the document can be read here, and I’d recommend that before taking any fantastical leaps one way or another.

I like this:

According to the constant tradition of the church, only a baptized person of the male sex validly receives sacred ordination. By means of the sacrament of orders, the Holy Spirit configures the candidate to Jesus Christ in a new and specific way: The priest, in fact, sacramentally represents Christ, the head, shepherd and spouse of the church. Because of this configuration to Christ, the entire life of the sacred minister must be animated by the gift of his whole person to the church and by an authentic pastoral charity.

The candidate to the ordained ministry, therefore, must reach affective maturity. Such maturity will allow him to relate correctly to both men and women, developing in him a true sense of spiritual fatherhood toward the church community that will be entrusted to him.

Thus, priestly formations first principles are based on the maturation of a vocational premise. Good start.

Note carefully that the premise is not priestly celibacy. If that were the case (as some commentators are incorrectly reading), that would mean radical things for Catholic Rites that do not observe priestly celibacy. Vocation, and the mature recognition of one’s vocation, is the starting point.

From the time of the Second Vatican Council until today, various documents of the magisterium, and especially the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” have confirmed the teaching of the church on homosexuality. The catechism distinguishes between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies.

Regarding acts, it teaches that sacred Scripture presents them as grave sins. The tradition has constantly considered them as intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law. Consequently, under no circumstance can they be approved.

Deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are found in a number of men and women, are also objectively disordered and, for those same people, often constitute a trial. Such persons must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. They are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s cross the difficulties they may encounter.

A perfect summation of the Catholic approach to homosexuality. Acts are distinct from personhood.

Some people have the inclination to drink excessively, steal, lie… those who commit the acts are labelled alcoholics, thieves, and liars. But there is a disrespect for the person if we begin to identify their acts with their being.

In the light of such teaching, this dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 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.”

Such persons, in fact, 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 persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

And the hammer drops, but on the homosexual act.

One could read this as follows:

(T)he church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice alcoholism, present deep-seated alcoholic tendencies or support the so-called “bar culture.”

(T)he church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice theft, present deep-seated theft tendencies or support the so-called “pickpocket culture.”

(T)he church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice lying, present deep-seated lying tendencies or support the so-called “lying culture.”

It’s a bit crude and unfashioned, but the point is made nonetheless. The distinction between the sin and the sinner is made very, very well by the Vatican document.

Then there is the topic of priestly ordination. Many confuse the idea of becoming a priest with the idea of becoming a lawyer, a doctor, or a teacher. You decide what you want to be, you go to school, you go to college, you go to graduate-level courses, you apply at an institution… Priestly formation is much different:

There are two inseparable elements in every priestly vocation: the free gift of God and the responsible freedom of the man. A vocation is a gift of divine grace received through the church, in the church and for the service of the church. In responding to the call of God, the man offers himself freely to him in love. The desire alone to become a priest is not sufficient, and there does not exist a right to receive sacred ordination. It belongs to the church — in her responsibility to define the necessary requirements for receiving the sacraments instituted by Christ — to discern the suitability of him who desires to enter the seminary, to accompany him during his years of formation and to call him to holy orders if he is judged to possess the necessary qualities.

Formation is the strong point, and it goes hand in hand with discernment. Why is it this way? Consider that the priesthood isn’t independent. Rather, the priest is a representative of the bishop, and is actually a “newer” innovation on the part of the Church (newer as in post-New Testament) where bishops would reside in major cities, and deacons would go forward and perform the needs of the Church.

Priests were a method of bringing the Mass to other communities. In doing so, they are bound by obedience to submit themselves to their bishops, as they are literally acting in their stead. Therefore, not only is a discernment process needed on behalf of the seminarian, a formation period is needed on behalf of the Church whom the priest will serve.

Pretty cool, huh?

Unfortunately, many who do not understand this demand holy orders for themselves, misunderstanding the vocational discernment as superior to their formation. Pride is the factor at play, and given the role of all religious is to serve Christ and His Church, you can now see why Holy Orders are just as much a trial of obedience as they are a trial of discernment.

It goes without saying that the candidate himself has the primary responsibility for his own formation. He must offer himself trustingly to the discernment of the church, of the bishop who calls him to orders, of the rector of the seminary, of his spiritual director and of the other seminary educators to whom the bishop or major superior has entrusted the task of forming future priests. It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality in order to proceed, despite everything, toward ordination. Such a deceitful attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and openness that must characterize the personality of him who believes he is called to serve Christ and his church in the ministerial priesthood.

Again, the struggle between personal pride and humble obedience.

The document concludes:

This congregation reaffirms the need for bishops, major superiors and all relevant authorities to carry out an attentive discernment concerning the suitability of candidates for holy orders from the time of admission to the seminary until ordination. This discernment must be done in light of a conception of the ministerial priesthood that is in accordance with the teaching of the church.

Let bishops, episcopal conferences and major superiors look to see that the constant norms of this instruction be faithfully observed for the good of the candidates themselves and to guarantee that the church always has suitable priests who are true shepherds according to the heart of Christ.

The supreme pontiff Benedict XVI on Aug. 31, 2005, approved this present instruction and ordered its publication.

The last part is important, because previous critics of past Vatican documents have shunned them because they did not issue from the Pope himself (a form of Americanism condemned by Pope Leo XIII). This document is authorititative, and does represent authentic Catholic teaching on the matter of the ordination of homosexuals.

So what will this mean in the end? For those of us who will remember, the Vatican is undergoing a review of all North American seminaries in the wake of the pederasty scandal. Now that the seminaries have been examined, and the guidelines proffered, changes will be expected to be made.

Ultimately, no commentary is going to provide the best view for the new Vatican document. I don’t believe it is too harsh or too lenient on the issue at all. In fact, it hits the nail square on the head. My only regret is that the document did not come out 20 years earlier.

Read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.

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