Vatican Considers Barring Gays from Priesthood

The Vatican is preparing a document that would bar homosexual men from entering Roman Catholic seminaries. The document, which could be released by the end of October, is already creating controversy — and unease — in the American priesthood.

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The Vatican is preparing a document that would bar homosexual men from entering Roman Catholic seminaries. The document could be released by the end of October. It's already caused some deep concerns in the American priesthood. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

When John Bollard entered a Jesuit seminary in California in 1988, he expected his education to revolve around Catholic theology and serving God. What he found instead was a sexually charged atmosphere where celibacy was the last thing on anybody's mind.

Mr. JOHN BOLLARD: I received sexual advances. I was mailed pornographic cards. I was encouraged to go to gay functions and gay bars with Jesuit priests.

HAGERTY: Bollard eventually left the seminary and sued the Jesuits for sexual harassment. That case has now settled. Ironically, Bollard himself is gay, but he got tired of the aggressive sexual atmosphere. Even the church agrees homosexuality is widespread. Estimates range from one-quarter to one-half of would-be priests. Many conservatives inside the church believe that has contributed to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and now the Vatican is poised to do some housecleaning. The New York Times reports today that it will soon release a document barring gay men from studying for the priesthood, even if they are celibate. Bollard says the Vatican approach is misguided.

Mr. BOLLARD: People are going to go back into the closet, maybe never deal with their sexual issues at all. And the lack of attention to people's sexual health in the seminary is the reason why we had all of this sexual misconduct.

HAGERTY: The church believes the problem is that seminaries are letting in too many gay men. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment today, saying they hadn't seen the document. But the church has long held that homosexuality is, in its words, disordered and can lead to immoral behavior. Still, Richard Gaillardetz, who teaches Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, says this new document may represent a subtle but important shift.

Mr. RICHARD GAILLARDETZ (University of Toledo): It's a step backwards from a very vital distinction in Roman Catholic tradition of sexual morality, and that is the distinction between one's sexual orientation and one's sexual behavior.

HAGERTY: The problem is not homosexuality, he and others say, but sexual promiscuity, whether people are gay or straight. Gaillardetz notes that the Vatican apparently will not take the more drastic step of telling gay priests they must leave the clergy.

Mr. GAILLARDETZ: I don't think they'd want to encourage a witch-hunt, which is what would happen. I mean, can you imagine the kind of vigilance committees in each diocese trying to scrutinize each priest to determine whether, in fact, they're homosexual or not?

HAGERTY: The timing of this document is no coincidence, according to Father James Keenan, who taught at Weston Jesuit Seminary for 14 years. It will probably be released just as Roman Catholic investigators travel to the 229 seminaries across the United States. Keenan says during the visitation, as it's called, investigators will ask questions like, `Are you concerned about the moral lives of faculty or students?'

Reverend JAMES KEENAN: People are being asked to report on one another. I mean, that's the way I understand it. That type of climate is really deeply problematic.

HAGERTY: But the Vatican has long been worried about the gay culture, and the church reserves the right to determine what kind of people it wants as priests. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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