The recent document from the Vatican entitled “An instruction concerning the Criteria of vocational discernment regarding persons with homosexual tendencies” has certainly stirred much controversy and spilled more than a little ink. Still, the issue is important enough to warrant some careful reflection. What are we to make of the bottom line of this text? What does it ask bishops and religious superiors to do? Some have said it bars homosexuals from the priesthood. Is that indeed the case? Archbishop Martin in his interview with The Tablet two months ago certainly didn’t think so. I agree with him.
At the heart of the text lies a very important distinction we often forget, or maybe don’t think about at all. There is a difference between what we do (our acts) and who we are. They certainly are linked, but we are always much more than our acts. We all know just how difficult it is, for example, to show or to explain how much we care for others, and yet we constantly try. This document plays on that difference, basing itself on a distinction the Church has used for 20 years, between the homosexual person (who is to be treated with dignity like any other person and who can like all other people live virtuous lives) and homosexual acts (which the Christian tradition has always seen as immoral).
Persons who have a homosexual orientation also have tendencies to act upon this; as the Church has noted, however, they can also be people of great virtue and faith who have learned to live chastely. The Church has constantly reminded us that homosexual orientation does not deprive a person of the ability to live virtuously, in accord with God’s call. One, therefore, needs to test how the candidate relates to his orientation, what habits he has developed. That distinction between person and tendency/act was a great advance in Catholic teaching, though it is often misunderstood.
In the Instruction, which seeks to help bishops, superiors, seminary staff, and candidates for priesthood, reflect on a person’s vocation, the key question is about a person’s “tendencies,” in this case, tendencies to act. What are his habits? What kinds of acts are natural to him? Those are the kinds of issues involved here. In some ways, the key question in this matter is better put as “what [or Who] is the centre of a person’s life”? The document bars from priesthood those persons for whom questions of sexual orientation (gay or straight, I would note) are the centre of their own lives; similarly, it bars those for whom a celibate life does not flow freely and peacefully from their relationship with Christ. This would include those who are steeped in a “gay culture”, as well as those who cannot live out the gift of celibate ministry. The question is whether people have affective maturity which makes possible the ability to place Christ and the service of Christ’s people at the centre of one’s life. The same would be true of a heterosexual person; in some ways, the document raises questions that would be helpful for all candidates to ordained ministry in the Catholic Church, though it could simply be used as a simplistic tool for not engaging in real personal discernment.
Especially in a sexualized culture like ours, where sexuality seems to be the heart of all discussions, this perspective asks a candidate – and the bishop or superior – to remember that for the Christian sexuality is a great gift, a central aspect of the way we relate to God, but in the end, the centre of our lives is the two-fold love of God and love of neighbour – only this can tell us who we truly are, not just how to act. A gay candidate who has integrated his sexuality into a faith-filled desire to serve, for whom Christ is the focus of his life, who can live a celibate life, knowing its struggles, can, as Archbishop Martin has pointed out, be a fine representative of Christ and an effective “spiritual father.” In 17 years of ministry, I have known many such candidates and priests; we probably all have, and not have realized it.
Is this Instruction the final word? In some ways, yes; it does clarify key issues that have to be borne in mind. Like all pastoral documents, especially those involved in discernment, this is the beginning of a process which involves interpretation, application, attentiveness, real listening, and, above all, prayer. In all of this, though, the good of God’s people and the candidate have to be at the heart of all we do.