Vatican's new guidelines maintain ban on gay priests

When the Vatican published a new set of guidelines last month for the training of seminarians, many hoped it would remove the ban on gay men entering the priesthood.

Some observers were hoping progressive Pope Francis would reverse the ban

Pope Francis poses for a selfie at the Vatican on Jan. 5, 2017. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

As Pope Francis approaches the fourth anniversary of being elected head of the Roman Catholic Church, he remains an exceedingly popular Catholic leader.

Despite the dissatisfied grumblings from a small core of conservative cardinals, whom the Pope has so far ignored, most Catholics find Francis's move away from stressing doctrinal rules and toward more compassion a more realistic and reassuring direction for Catholicism.

Even his softened stance toward LGBT Catholics — from his "Who am I to judge?" comment about gay people to his use of the word "gay" — has provided hope for gay Catholics, long shunned by their church, that the shift in tone might make its way into official church documents.

Those hopes, though, were recently dashed when the Vatican published a new set of guidelines for the training of seminarians with the rosy title The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.

Within the manual lay a decidedly less jubilant clarification of who qualifies for the job. 

"The Church … cannot admit to the seminary … those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture," it read. 

The ban on gay men from entering the seminary came as a surprise to no one close to the Vatican. First introduced in 2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, it was part of an attempt to purge the priesthood of homosexuality — both the act and the orientation — in part as a response to the sex abuse crisis. 

The idea that gays cannot be good priests is stupid, demeaning, unjust and contrary to the facts.- Thomas Reese

Vatican observers such as Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and National Catholic Reporter columnist, did not hide their dismay that the ban on gay seminarians, albeit couched in vague language, remained.

"The idea that gays cannot be good priests is stupid, demeaning, unjust and contrary to the facts," wrote Reese. "I know many very good priests who are gay, and I suspect even more good priests I know are gay."

Reese may well have been referring to men like Krzysztof Charamsa. 

The former high-ranking Vatican official and now defrocked Polish priest worked for a decade or so under Ratzinger, inching deeper into the closet as he increasingly heard language like "intrinsically disordered" used to describe gay people.

Vatican official Krzysztof Charamsa, left, came out as gay in 2015 and denounced the Vatican for 'paranoid homophobia' at a news conference with his partner Eduard Planas. (CBC)

"It was horror to think that I [was] gay," Charamsa said of his early years in the seminary in his homeland of Poland.

Later, as a doctrinal official at the Vatican, he said, he was under continual stress that someone might realize he was gay.

But after falling in love with a man, Charamsa made a move that few other gay priests have dared.

In a blistering denunciation of what he called the Vatican's "paranoid homophobia," in late 2015 Charamsa stepped out of the closet at a news conference, with his gay partner by his side.

"It was desperate, my coming out," he said, "because I wasn't able to simply say, 'We need to study sexuality. We need to get informed.' But you know, everybody at the Vatican knows, when we begin to get informed [about sexuality], we'll have to change the doctrine, because it's incoherent with human sexuality."

Same sex = no sex

Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, attended the Vatican family meetings and in an interview shortly after Charamsa's public outing, said he took exception to the former priest's characterization of the Catholic Church as homophobic.

Archbishop of Toronto Thomas Collins, seen here in 2007, says it's 'simply unfair' to accuse the Catholic Church of being homophobic. (L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)

"I think that's just simply unfair," said Collins. "To accuse anyone of being phobic — that's a bludgeon to shut down people's freedom of speech. You barely open your mouth and someone says you're phobic."

Collins, a doctrinal hardliner, says gay Catholics should be treated with compassion, but his advice to same-sex couples is the same advice the Catholic Church provides to Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the church: do not have sex.

"We're dealing with a tendency or inclination," Collins said. "We're not slaves to anything in life. What it means to be free is not to be a slave to our inclinations."

Yet longtime Vatican expert Robert Mickens says euphemisms such as "homosexual inclinations" are just one of the many ways the Catholic Church avoids facing the issue of gayness in its midst, or what he calls the "homoerotic culture" of the church.

Gay priest comes out at Vatican, is immediately fired

7 years ago
Duration 3:35
Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa is calling on the Vatican to publicly change its stance on homosexuality

Mickens, who left the seminary more than 20 years ago after he realized he was gay, says it's an open secret the Catholic priesthood — and the Vatican — is rife with gay men.

He discovered it first-hand in Rome.

"After I left the seminary, I started to go out to gay places — beaches and nightclubs — and I was running into all kinds of priests and seminarians and officials that worked at the Vatican," he said.

Mickens says he pities many of them because of the stress of living a double life.

Mickens, like Charamsa and many other gay priests who will speak openly about it, says the Church still remains an attractive place for Catholic gay men who don't want to face their sexuality.

He and others also say much of the anti-gay stance in the Catholic Church is generated by priests he describes as "self-loathing, homophobic and homosexual."

Yet, he says, it is not likely the Church will encourage open discussion about the high numbers of gay men in the priesthood anytime soon.

"The Church wants to keep this issue a taboo so that those pious young men will continue to think of the priesthood as the noble way, rather than, 'I'm gay and maybe that's how I should lead my life as a gay man.' If we allow people to live openly their homosexuality, we lose a great pool of our resources for ministry."


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.