December 3, 2005
The Vatican and Gay Problems

By William F. Buckley

The Vatican ruling on homosexuals in the seminaries is interesting to other than gay-rights hawks. Catholics are at liberty to say that it is not the business of non-Catholics to probe such matters. But they will be speaking mostly to themselves, because the Vatican ruling touches on questions of universal concern.

The ruling against homosexuals in the seminaries isn't on the order of Catholics will not eat meat on Fridays. The ruling isn't limited to disciplinary matters that are indeed only for Catholics to concern themselves with. When one observer pointed out that seminarians also have rights, he invoked a cultural reality, which is that the practices of Catholic clerics cannot be ignored by pleading the isolation of the Catholic vocation. The question primarily addressed has to do with the predisposition to homosexuality, a subject in which everyone is interested.

The Vatican letter says that the church respects homosexuals, but that it "cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture."

The Vatican document (it is less than 10 pages) attempts some sensible refinements. Distinctions are to be made between "deeply rooted homosexuality" and "homosexual tendencies that are only the expression of a transitory problem such as, for example, an unfinished adolescence." Homosexual leanings "must however have been clearly overcome for at least three years before ordination to the diaconate."

The first difficulty presents itself: How is the seminarian expected to pass muster here? The easiest way is simply to profess that his gay leanings were a weakness of the past. But this is a form of malingering, if not true. One of the planted axioms of sexual equality is that homosexual inclinations are congenital. One can be skeptical about this assertion while still granting the point that someone who engages in homosexual acts at age 14 may, at age 24, still harbor gay proclivities. If this is the case for the aspirant priest, the practical question becomes simply: Is he willing to tell the truth?

If so, under the new ruling he will be denied the practice of his vocation. If, on the other hand, he is willing to deceive, he will perhaps proceed to ordination, but he will have shipwrecked the integrity of his calling, which denies the right of any priest to conceal the truth and ignore sinfulness.

Non-Catholics are free to dwell on paradoxes. The seminarian in the confessional is comprehensively protected as to privacy. He is at liberty to lie to the confessor, but if he is willing to do so, what happens to the whole architecture of his life? The foreign spy can sing full-throatedly "The Star-Spangled Banner" even as he awaits the explosion of the bomb he has planted in the Pentagon. But the spy's vocation is not founded on truthfulness. For the seminarian who lies, the integrity of his sovereignty over his own affairs is at risk, even as it can be held that any man or woman who, while married, consorts sexually with a third party is betraying his or her own freedom to make oaths.

Confessionals, and their secular equivalents, adjudicate the conflict between belief and behavior. A libertine can vow to reform, and it is only asked of the homosexual that he shall have "overcome" for at least three years any inclination to gay activity. But it tantalizes the mind and stretches the imagination to project a spiritual examining room in which the confessor is bound not to act on private communications from the sinner; and the sinner is technically free to continue in sin.

Most eyes trained on the Vatican letter are looking at its effect in the United States, for the piquant reason that sexual activity here is almost studiously unregulated, yet the Protestant ethic is a cloud that never quite dematerializes, from sea to shining sea. There is, besides, a quite desperate shortage of priests, a decimation of whose numbers would surely result from a hard enforcement of the new document. And there is the continuing plea for change in the matter of the all-male priesthood.

This pope is unlikely to consider as still open a question that his predecessor so decisively declared closed. Which leaves open the possibility of miraculous changes in extra-theological practices, which is the work of the Lord.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

William F. Buckley

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