Discernment of a priestly vocation and the homosexual condition

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Introduction In the Oct. 14 issue of the St. Louis Review, I wrote about Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, our archdiocesan seminary. Toward the end of the article, I addressed the concern regarding the admission to the seminary of men who suffer from same-sex attraction, that is, the homosexual condition. The subject has been discussed in the public media in the context of the apostolic visitation to all the seminaries in the United States. The apostolic visitation, carried out at the direction of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, in a particular way, given the grave scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, seeks to assure that seminarians are educated to make right judgments regarding sexual morality and, specifically, homosexual acts. In other words, the apostolic visitation wants to make sure that seminarians are leading a serenely pure and chaste life in preparation for making the promise of celibacy and receiving ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood. On Nov. 29, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued a most important and helpful document to assist diocesan bishops and seminary officials in responding to candidates applying for the seminary or presenting themselves for ordination, who suffer with homosexual tendencies. The document is titled: Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies, in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, approved the instruction and ordered its publication on Aug. 31. The instruction was signed by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, the secretary or second-in-command at the congregation, on Nov. 4, the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, patron saint of seminaries. Because of the importance of the instruction and to help dispel the confusion which has surrounded its predicted promulgation, I want to communicate to all the faithful of the archdiocese the substance of the instruction and the norms which it contains. Context The instruction is set within the context of the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on priestly formation, which is principally found in the decree Optatam totius, "On the Training of Priests," promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965. Since the promulgation of the conciliar decree, the Congre-gation for Catholic Education has published a whole series of documents to promote the fitting and complete formation of future priests. These documents contain "guidelines and precise norms" to be followed and observed in all seminaries. The first and most important document was the basic plan of priestly formation, issued, first, in 1970 and, in a revised edition, in 1985. Other documents have been directed to various aspects of seminary education and formation, for example, philosophical studies (1972), formation in priestly celibacy (1974), the teaching of canon law (1975), theological formation of seminarians (1976), the formation of older or late vocations (1976), liturgical formation (1979), spiritual formation (1980), and many more aspects. A complete list of the documents in question is provided in the second footnote of the instruction (Introduction). The Synod of Bishops in 1990 devoted itself exclusively to the study of priestly formation in the present time, with a view to completing the teaching in the conciliar decree and to applying it more explicitly and accurately to the present times. After the conclusion of the 1990 Synod of Bishops, our late and most beloved Pope John Paul II published the fruit of the synodal discussions in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, "On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day," on March 25, 1992. The post-synodal apostolic exhortation is the magna charta for seminaries today. The instruction makes it clear that, given all of the teaching contained in other Church documents, it "does not intend to dwell on all questions in the area of affectivity and sexuality that require an attentive discernment during the entire period of formation" (Introduction).It treats, rather, the specific question of "whether to admit to the seminary and to Holy Orders candidates who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies." The question, as is clear, is most urgent at the present time, given the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, which has chiefly involved homosexual acts with adolescent boys, and given the ever greater confusion regarding the homosexual condition in society, in general. The instruction provides fitting norms to be followed in the matter (Introduction). Affective maturity and spiritual fatherhood The instruction, first, reminds us that, according to the constant tradition of the Church, "only a baptized person of the male sex validly receives sacred ordination."Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the Holy Spirit configures the ordained to Jesus Christ by a new and specific title. The ordained priest, in fact, "sacramentally represents Christ, the Head, Shepherd and Bridegroom of the Church." Because of the ontological change in the ordained priest, that is, his sacramental configuration to Christ the High Priest, his life, in every aspect, "must be animated by the gift of his whole person to the Church and by authentic pastoral charity" (n. 1). In other words, there cannot be any part of the life of the ordained priest which is incoherent with or contradicts his sacramental identity with Christ the High Priest. It is clear, therefore, that the candidate for the ordained ministry must attain a certain affective maturity. "Such maturity will allow him to relate correctly to both men and women, developing in him a true sense of spiritual fatherhood toward the Church community that will be entrusted to him" (n. 1). If the candidate for Holy Orders is troubled or confused regarding his own sexual identity and its correct expression, then he will not be able to carry out the priestly ministry which is a daily expression of spiritual fatherhood. Homosexuality and the ordained minister The instruction then calls to mind the consistent confirmation of the Church’s perennial teaching on the homosexual condition since the time of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in nn. 2357-2358, which distinguishes between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies, expresses the Church’s teaching in the matter (n. 2). With respect to homosexual acts, the catechism teaches us that, in the Sacred Scriptures, such acts are held to be serious sins. Sacred Tradition has always considered them to be "intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law." The instruction, therefore, rightly concludes that "under no circumstance can they be approved" (n. 2). Deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are found in a certain number of men and women, are "also objectively disordered and, for those same people, often constitute a trial." The instruction states that these persons are to be received "with respect and sensitivity." Any trace of unjust discrimination is to be avoided. Those who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, for their part, "are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter" (n. 2). In the light of the Church’s teaching, the instruction then provides two concrete norms to be followed in seminaries. The first norm is: "In the light of such teaching, this congregation, in agreement with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, finds it necessary to affirm clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture" (n. 2). The instruction continues by providing the reason for the norm and giving an admonition to take to heart the results of admitting to the seminary or to sacred ordination a person with deep-seated homosexual tendencies: "Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies" (n. 2). Here, one must keep in mind the required affective maturity in the ordained priest who, after the Heart of Christ, is to be a spiritual father to the flock. The second norm is: "Different, however, would be the case in which one were dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem — for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded. Nevertheless, such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate" (n. 2). In today’s society, our young people are bombarded by the media with every form of sexual activity, both heterosexual and homosexual. Also, sadly, some young men grow up without a strong fatherly presence in their lives. The highly sexualized society and the natural need to identify personally with a father figure can cause a temporary confusion regarding sexual identity, which, with proper spiritual and psychological assistance, can be overcome. In such a case, the candidate remains in an adolescent state regarding affective maturity and must receive help to come to a properly ordered adult affectivity. The Church’s discernment of the fittingness of candidates The instruction recalls for us that there are "two inseparable elements in every priestly vocation: the free gift of God and the responsible freedom of the man." God gives the grace of a priestly vocation to a man "through the Church, in the Church and for the service of the Church." The candidate rightly responds to God’s call by offering himself freely to God in love. Given the two inseparable elements, the instruction reminds us that the desire to become a priest is not sufficient in itself and that "there does not exist a right to receive sacred ordination." The instruction declares: "It belongs to the Church — in her responsibility to define the necessary requirements for the reception of the sacraments instituted by Christ — to discern the suitability of the one who wants to enter the seminary, to accompany him during the years of formation, and to call him to Holy Orders, if he is judged to possess the requisite qualities" (n. 2). In the Church, we understand that a man has a vocation to the priesthood, if he offers himself and the Church calls him. Regarding the formation of seminarians, attention must be paid to four dimensions: the human, the spiritual, the intellectual and the pastoral dimensions. In the matter under consideration, particular attention must be given to the human formation of the candidate "as the necessary foundation of all formation." Once again, the instruction turns to the question of the required affective maturity in the candidate for Holy Orders, declaring: "In order to admit a candidate to ordination to the diaconate, the Church must verify, among other things, that the candidate has reached affective maturity" (n. 3). The grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders builds upon the human nature of the candidate. Attention to the human formation of the candidate and, in particular, his affective maturity, is, therefore, essential and fundamental. Those responsible for the discernment It is the most serious responsibility of the diocesan bishop or major superior of the institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life to call a man to Holy Orders. Clearly, in order to give the call, the diocesan bishop or major superior "must arrive at a morally certain judgment on his qualities." The instruction, then, recalls a third norm, contained in can. 1052, para. 3, of the Code of Canon Law, pertaining to the decision to call a man to ordination: "In the case of a serious doubt in this regard, he must not admit him to ordination" (n. 3). The diocesan bishop or major superior must have moral certitude, that is, no reasonable doubt to the contrary, in order to give the call to Holy Orders. As is clear, the rector of the seminary and those who assist him in the work of priestly formation also have a most serious responsibility in the matter, for the diocesan bishop and major superior rely upon their qualified judgment regarding the suitability of the candidate. The instruction recalls a fourth norm, contained in canon 1051 of the Code of Canon Law: "Before every ordination, the rector must express his own judgment on whether the qualities required by the Church are present in the candidate" (n. 3). We are blessed in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to have our own seminary. The rector and myself as archbishop work closely together throughout the whole period of formation in order to attain the moral certitude regarding the suitability of each candidate for sacred ordination. The spiritual director of the candidate also bears a heavy responsibility in the matter. Spiritual direction is completely confidential.The spiritual director may not reveal to third parties what a seminarian has confided to him, unless, of course, the seminarian explicitly asks him to do so. In his conversations with the seminarian, the spiritual director will necessarily give consistent attention to the purity and chastity required in a candidate for ordination. He will help the seminarian to discover whether he has attained the requisite affective maturity, along with all of the other qualities required in a priest. The instruction then provides a fifth norm: "The spiritual director has the obligation to evaluate all the qualities of the candidate’s personality and to make sure that he does not present disturbances of a sexual nature, which are incompatible with the priesthood. If a candidate practices homosexuality or presents deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, as well as his confessor, have the duty to dissuade him in conscience from proceeding towards ordination" (n. 3). While the spiritual director and confessor cannot reveal what they know through spiritual direction or the Sacrament of Penance, they have the obligation to urge strenuously the seminarian to do what a rightly formed conscience demands of him. Finally, the instruction reminds us of "the primary responsibility" of the candidate for his own formation. It is essential that the seminarian "offer himself trustingly to the discernment of the Church, of the bishop who calls him to Orders, of the rector of the seminary, of his spiritual director and of the other seminary educators to whom the bishop or major superior has entrusted the task of forming future priests." An essential part of the trusting offer of self to the Church is honesty regarding anything which may make the candidate unsuitable for priestly ordination and ministry. Hiding deep-seated homosexual tendencies, the practice of homosexuality or the support of the gay culture, on the part of the candidate, is "gravely dishonest." The instruction declares: "Such a deceitful attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and openness that must characterize the personality of him who believes he is called to serve Christ and His Church in the ministerial priesthood" (n. 3). I have customarily said to seminarians that what we both know in these matters we can deal with in a manner which best serves the good of the Church and of the seminarian, and what we both do not know will inevitably be the cause of great harm to the Church and the seminarian. Conclusion The instruction concludes by reaffirming "the need for bishops, major superiors and all relevant authorities to carry out an attentive discernment concerning the suitability of candidates for Holy Orders, from the time of admission to the seminary until ordination." It exhorts diocesan bishops, conferences of bishops and major superiors "to see that the constant norms of this instruction be faithfully observed for the good of the candidates themselves, and to guarantee that the Church always has suitable priests who are true shepherds according to the Heart of Christ" (Conclusion). It pleases me to say that the direction given in the instruction is followed at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. Now that the instruction has been published, it will be necessary to examine all of the policies and procedures of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary to be certain that they are fully in accord with the norms given in the instruction. Let us be thankful for this latest authoritative direction in the preparation of our future priests. Let us take the occasion of the promulgation of the instruction to renew our daily prayers for our seminarians and for all who are entrusted with their priestly formation and the discernment of their suitability for ordination.

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