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ND experts react to potential seminary rules

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Speculation about the release of a Vatican document containing restrictions barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood has stirred debate and emotions both across the nation and at Notre Dame.

The restrictions, which would require Vatican representatives to investigate the 229 U.S. seminaries for “evidence of homosexuality,” have been reported by news agencies but not been officially confirmed. But R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an expert on the Catholic Church’s recent sexual abuse scandals, called this possible move by the Vatican “sadly punitive.”

“If a gay man feels called to the priesthood, [under the proposed new ruling] he must dissemble, or even lie, about his sexual orientation,” Appleby said. “In a sense, the Church would be complicit in a lie.”

This, Appleby said, would create an “unhealthy” and repressive climate like the one present in seminaries during the highly publicized scandals of recent years.

“We know how that’s an unhealthy situation,” Appleby said. “It can even backfire.”

The reason for the Vatican’s statement stemmed from “the concern that some seminaries in the U.S. are becoming a haven for homosexuals,” Appleby said. “And the feeling on the part of some people that heterosexuals are intimidated from entering the seminary, or feel uncomfortable, because it’s a gay climate.”

Theology professor Father Richard McBrien agreed with the idea that a gay climate exists in seminaries. He said the Church’s sexual abuse scandals were a major contributing factor to the proposed restrictions.

“The U.S. cardinals themselves asked for this investigation of seminaries in April 2002, at the height of the sexual abuse scandal,” McBrien said. “At the time – and since – there were a number of charges, mainly from ultra-conservative Catholics, that homosexuals in the priesthood were responsible for the sexual abuse, 80 percent of whose victims were boys.”

This statistic, theology professor Lawrence Cunningham said, sparked controversy.

“Since it was overwhelmingly young men, over young women [who were allegedly abused], the question is were they [Church officials] ordaining men who were homosexuals,” Cunningham said. “Some people have criticized this … that once there had been evidence of that, these people have not been removed from active ministry.”

Appleby said he did not support the belief that homosexuals in seminaries were a cause of the scandals, a theory he attributed to “anxiety” in the Vatican.

“Cardinal Ratzinger has taught that the orientation to homosexuality is inherently disordered, but not sinful,” Appleby said, referring to a statement made by the current Pope Benedict XVI in the mid-1980s that sin resulted from acting on, not possessing, a homosexual orientation.

“Even by the Church’s teaching, this new ruling is harsh,” Appleby said.

Appleby said throughout the 20th century, when priests were asked why they joined the priesthood, their “number one reason was to save their immortal souls, which means to become holy and do Christ’s work.”

The proposed restrictions are a commentary on this concept, Appleby said.

“What the Church seems to be saying is Christ can transform the lives of sinners who are heterosexual, but not those who are homosexual,” he said.

Both Appleby and McBrien disagreed with the logic behind the Vatican’s statement.

“It’s hard for me to find a silver lining in either the ruling or attitude that stands behind it,” Appleby said. “Most Catholics in this country know many good priests who are gay, but keep their vows of celibacy … There are so many good and loyal and holy priests [who are also gay].”

Like Appleby, McBrien took issue with the discord between the restrictions and the Church’s distinction view on homosexuality.

“Unfortunately, this latest anti-gay campaign seems to imply that merely being gay is enough to exclude one from seminaries and the priesthood, even if the gay person is sexually inactive,” he said.

McBrien said the restrictions would “of course” worsen the current priest shortage facing the U.S.

“If a significant number of gay priests decide to leave the priesthood over this matter and if gays leave the seminaries and others no longer apply for admission, mathematically this will deplete the number of priests and future priests,” he said.

Neither Appleby nor McBrien thought the number of heterosexual candidates for priesthood would increase as a result of the ruling.

“The problem for heterosexual young men is not the gay culture of seminaries, but the rule of obligatory celibacy,” McBrien said. “That genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. The Roman Catholic Church will have to address the problem of celibacy openly and objectively or the priest shortage will only worsen.”

Appleby said the proposed investigations would be “rare.”

“There are visitations of seminaries, but this type of visitation is for disciplinary purposes, what we might call housekeeping,” he said.

If enacted, the regulations could require an investigation of Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary. Moreau superior Father Patrick Neary and Moreau seminarian Father J. Steele said they could not estimate the potential impact of the investigations on Moreau.

“It’s all speculation,” Neary said. “I would caution people not to get hysterical since nothing’s been published. There’s been a lot of emotion over this.”

Speculation about the possible restrictions has been rising, Steele said.

“I’ve heard these rumors for some time … If this comes out then we’ll have to deal with it,” Steele said.

While Neary could not speak to the potential for increases or decreases in the number of candidates entering Moreau, he said he “would be concerned if a statement came out.”

Even though the Church has not released anything official, Appleby said anticipation of proposed Vatican investigations had already taken its toll on priests.

“I think many priests, heterosexual and homosexual, have already been hurt by the publicity about this visitation,” Appleby said. “I can’t imagine it having a positive effect on the morale of priests precisely because it would take on the aspect of a witch hunt.”

Kate Antonacci contributed to this report.