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Gay-priest doctrine may provide pope with first big test

Stacy Meichtry, Religion News Service - 24.11.2005

Vatican City- Pope Benedict XVI could face the first major test of his authority as the Vatican prepares to enforce instructions that bar openly gay men from entering seminaries and the priesthood
In giving his personal approval to a document outlining the ban, Benedict has made it clear that Rome intends to rein in local practices that have in recent decades led to a perceived prevalence of homosexuality in the American priesthood
There are serious doubts, however, as to whether the document actually compels church leaders to carry out Benedict's wishes. According to the forthcoming document, which has been widely leaked to the media in anticipation of its official release next Tuesday, the new "Instruction" reflects church teaching that has already been in place for decades but seldom enforced
Citing the Catholic Catechism, the document notes that the church already regards people with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" as "objectively disordered."
"In light of such teaching," the document states, the Congregation for Catholic Education "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."
Candidates experiencing "transitory homosexual tendencies" are not disqualified, but must "clearly overcome" them three years before being ordained as deacons - a formal step that precedes becoming a priest.
Although the document draws a distinction between "transitory" and "deep-seated" tendencies, it stops short of defining those terms explicitly. That move, observers say, appears to grant local bishops, seminary rectors and the superiors of religious orders considerable leeway in deciding how and whether to enforce the new norms.
"I think there's going to be a lot of resistance," said the Rev. Mark Francis, the Rome-based general superior of the Clerics of St. Viator, a religious order of priests. "What does 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' really mean? How is that to be interpreted?" heasked
"When push comes to shove, a lot of the decision-making is going to be left in the hands of local people."
According to the Rev. Robert Gahl, an ethics professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, the four-page instruction is based on church teaching that says homosexuality is not innate, but a condition subject to change. The term "deep-seated" would therefore apply to candidates who are struggling to make that transition.
"Everyone is capable of change," Gahl said. "But being deeply rooted is something that is seated - it's not just passing."
The Vatican instruction also stipulates that spiritual directors who work with seminarians are obligated to "dissuade" candidates who display "deep-seated tendencies," but warns them to maintain confidentiality and not report their findings to superiors.
The document also warns that "it would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his true homosexuality to gain, despite everything, ordination.
Although the document appears toothless on a technical level, Gahl expects local officials and seminary directors and candidates to adhere to the Vatican's instructions in good faith
"Penalties aren't specified for disobedience, but the church presumes that the people working in priestly formation will have the good of the church in their heart and will want to comply with the directives that come from the Holy Father," he said.
Some American bishops, however, have already indicated that they are reluctant to drastically alter policies that have allowed gay men into the priesthood for decades
Writing in his diocesan newspaper on Oct. 28, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, declared that "witch hunts and gay bashing have no place in the church."
"There are many wonderful and excellent priests in the church who have a gay orientation, are chaste and celibate, and are very effective ministers of the Gospel," he wrote.
And in a Nov. 12 column, Bishop Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, N.Y., wrote that his diocese will continue to evaluate "gay young men who are considering a vocation to priesthood."