Gay men and lesbians who were wondering just how far Pope Benedict XVI would take his decades-old homophobic agenda had to wait only a few months: The Vatican is finalizing a document intended to renew its efforts to purge gay priests.
Reportedly, the tenor of the directive is that homosexuality and the priesthood are essentially incompatible. To that end, the Roman Catholic Church will likely demand that gay candidates demonstrate years of celibacy before they can enter seminary. Further, the church may prohibit its priests and institutions from making any appearance of public support for gay people. The church in the United States has already begun Vatican-ordered inspections of its 229 seminaries, looking for, among other things, "evidence of homosexuality."
Despite expectations that the pope would approve a still harsher "instruction" that even celibate gay men be barred from the priesthood, this latest move from the Vatican comes as an unprovoked attack.
"This whole issue has been raised by the official church within the context of the sex abuse scandal," says Michael Rocks, former president of the Philadelphia chapter of Dignity USA, an LGBT Catholic group. "What does this say about priests who are gay who already have come out and supported gay issues publicly? What does this say about the thousands and thousands of gay men who have already taken stands? They're protecting the hierarchy at all costs. People used to say the police were a group who always protected themselves. [The church I puts the police to shame."
R. Scott Appleby, professor of 20th-century U.S. religious history at the University of Notre Dame, says that if the Vatican enforces this decision, "it could end up restricting entry into the priesthood to heterosexuals, which is a de facto extension of the existing teachings. Even worse, it would place homosexuals into the position of hiding their orientation, lying and suppressing their identity, or not entering the church."
Joe Murray, U.S. convener of the Rainbow Sash Movement, a group of Catholics who wear rainbow sashes to mass to denote that they wish to receive the sacrament as openly gay men and women, regularly attends services at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Chicago. Murray compares the latest witch hunt to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "I'd like to know how they're going to enforce this. The U.S. military can't do it. What does the Vatican have that the Pentagon doesn't?" he asks. "If they are able to enforce this, it would backfire. More churches would be closed and less people serving."
When the church's plans were first made public, friends of Father Mychal Judge--an openly gay Roman Catholic priest and chaplain of the New York Fire Department who was killed during the events of September 11, 2001--were equally angry. Thomas Von Essen, New York City's former fire commissioner, called keeping such men out of the priesthood a shame.
There are approximately 46,000 Catholic priests in the United States, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Some sources, including The Changing Face of the Priesthood, a controversial book by the Reverend Donald B. Cozzens, estimate that gay men account for 40% or more of all ordained U.S. Roman Catholic clergy and seminarians.
And they are facing increased scrutiny--especially as church leaders and fringe groups come out against their ordination. Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory, former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has criticized homosexuality within seminaries. Cardinal Adam Maida, who is archbishop of Detroit, and the Family Research Council, an ultraconservative Christian lobbying group, have each called pedophilia a homosexual problem.
In a written statement, the Reverend John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, asked the U.S. Conference of Bishops to "thoroughly, completely, and specifically investigate and eliminate all vestiges of homosexuality and liturgical abuse from all seminaries. …