We are all too painfully aware of the problems that homosexuality in the priesthood has caused the Catholic Church. When the John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted its research into clerical sex abuse for the U.S. bishops in 2004, it found not a pedophilia crisis but what Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, described as a pattern of "homosexual predation on American Catholic youth." The first question that comes to mind is: Should the Church accept homosexuals into diocesan and religious seminaries and religious community life? Consideration of this question is based on the answer to a more fundamental question: Is a homosexual's vow of chastity in religious life valid?
Attempts to Address Homosexuality in Religious Life
Since the discovery that the real problem among deviant clergy is "homosexual predation," the Church has attempted to address the problem of homosexuality among the clergy. The Congregation for Catholic Education stated in its 2008 "Vatican Report on U.S. Seminaries" that, while homosexuality in U.S. diocesan seminaries is being appropriately addressed, "there are still some places — usually centers of formation for religious — where ambiguity vis-à-vis homosexuality persists."
Strange as it may seem, in the past twenty years there has been only one passing statement — one sentence to be exact — by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life dealing with homosexuality in religious life. In its 1990 "Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes," the Congregation stated, "In this context [of sexuality and formation] reasons must be given and understood to explain why those who do not seem to be able to overcome their homosexual tendencies or who maintain that it is possible to adopt a third way, 'living in an ambiguous state between celibacy and marriage,' must be dismissed from the religious life."
It is unclear what the Congregation means by "reasons must be given and understood." Is the Congregation still searching for answers to this problem? Is it not yet certain that men with homosexual tendencies should be dismissed from religious life? One does not have to think too long to discover a reason to dismiss those people "who maintain that it is possible to adopt a third way, 'living in an ambiguous state between celibacy and marriage.'" Thirty years ago, Fr. Jan Bots explained that the "third way" is a concept that describes "erotic-sexual friendships" between priests and religious (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, June 1980). Even the ultra-progressive Dutch bishops of the 1980s were in agreement with one another and with Rome in rejecting this "third way." So, those who advocate a so-called third way must be dismissed from religious community life because they are arguing for the right of religious to violate their vows of chastity by engaging in sexual perversion.
That's a clear and simple case. But what about a celibate man with homosexual tendencies: Should the Church dismiss him from religious life? A religious community accepted him and perhaps even knew of his same-sex attraction. It would therefore seem to be uncharitable to dismiss an elderly religious homosexual who has no problem living chastely. More to the point, then, the Church should ask whether men with homosexual tendencies ought to be permitted to enter male religious life now and in the future.
In his Summa Theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas explains that chastity "takes its name from the fact that reason chastises concupiscence, which like a child, needs curbing..." (II-II, Q151, a.1). Chastity is thus a virtue that moderates the sexual appetite according to the judgment of reason. The vow of chastity involves more than perfect continence; it also involves a disposition of interior integrity in which a person gives himself totally to God. An "undivided heart" is the essential element of the vow of chastity (cf. Catechism, #2349; can. 599).
Aquinas pointed out that of the three vows in religious life — poverty, chastity, and obedience — the vow of chastity is the most critical for attaining perfection in religious life. He identified the first step to perfection as the renunciation of external goods in the vow of poverty. The second, higher step is the renunciation of "fleshly affection and of marriage." Aquinas elucidated:
Now amongst all relationships the conjugal tie does, more than any other, engross men's hearts.... Hence, they who are aiming at perfection, must, above all things, avoid the bond of marriage, which, in a pre-eminent degree, entangles men in earthly concerns.... For the soul is hindered in its free access to God, not only by love of exterior things, but much more by the force of interior passions. And, amongst these passions, the lust of flesh does, beyond all other, overpower reason.Pope John Paul II, in his November 16, 1994, Wednesday audience, spoke of the three vows of consecrated life: "The [Second Vatican] Council...expressly mentions 'consecrated chastity' before the other two vows (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 43; Decree Perfectae Caritatis, nn. 12,13,14), because it considers chastity as the determining commitment of the state of consecrated life."
The vow of chastity, as distinct from poverty and obedience, is the foundational commitment in consecrated religious life. This helps to explain why the order of "consecrated virgins" is a valid form of consecrated life even though the vow of chastity is taken without the explicit profession of accompanying vows of poverty and obedience (can. 604). Virginity also has a central and fundamental significance for the man who enters religious life because giving up woman represents the total giving of himself to God in all three vows. When a man gives up woman (viz., marriage) he is not only giving his "undivided love" to God in chastity, he is also giving to God his greatest possession and placing his spousal will at the disposal of the Bride of Christ through obedience to the Church.
The Homosexual Person
Fr. John Harvey, O.S.F.S., an expert on the pastoral care of homosexuals, defined the homosexual person as one who has an "erotic attraction to one's own sex...[and] the condition has existed for such a length of time that it seems that he will develop no meaningful heterosexual interests" (The Priest, Jul.-Aug. 1977). It is also important to note that the Catechism teaches that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" (#2357) and that the homosexual inclination itself is "objectively disordered" (#2358).
So, what does the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life mean when it says that religious must "overcome their homosexual tendencies"? Given the accepted meaning of the terms, the Congregation appears to be saying that it is necessary for a person with a same-sex attraction to do more than give up homosexual acts in order to enter or remain in male religious community life. The Congregation seems to be requiring that he also overcome his homosexual urges or desires. Is it possible to identify "reasons" that "explain why those who do not seem able to overcome their homosexual tendencies" should not be allowed to enter community religious life?
The Near Occasion of Sin
In his book Love and Responsibility, John Paul II wrote, "Man, alas, is not such a perfect being that the sight of the body of another person, especially a person of the other sex, can arouse in him merely a disinterested liking which develops into an innocent affection." Honest men do not take vows of chastity or celibacy and then try to live out these vows by living in close quarters with women. They know that they cannot share intimate living space, like bathrooms and showers, with women and remain faithful to their vows. The Dutch experiment of the "third way," with priests living with nuns, showed definitively that this does not work. This is precisely why male religious live in monasteries with other men, and female religious live in convents with other women. The sexes are separated in religious life primarily for the sake of chastity.
But a man with homosexual tendencies has an erotic attraction to other men. So we must repeat the above insight of John Paul II on concupiscence with a slight alteration: "The homosexual man, alas, is not such a perfect being that the sight of the body of another person, especially a person of the same sex, can arouse in him merely a disinterested liking which develops into an innocent affection." A man with homosexual tendencies must take concupiscence and his sexual orientation into account when he chooses his vocation in life. He may wish to join a religious community of men, but in so doing he puts himself into a serious near occasion of sin. Homosexual tendencies and concupiscence must also be taken into account by the religious community that considers a man with homosexual tendencies as a candidate. Fr. Harvey stated it simply: Avoidance of the occasion of sin is the correct pastoral counseling for homosexuals.
Some may wish to argue that if a man's same-sex attraction is mild perhaps a religious community could still accept him. This is nonsense. A man who has a "slight problem" controlling his erotic urges for women does not overcome his erotic desires by living with women in close quarters. He knows that this will only fan the flames of his passion. The same is true for the homosexual man with mild erotic desires. He does not overcome his homosexual urges and desires by living in close quarters with other men. This will only amplify his homosexual desires. He must overcome these homosexual tendencies before he enters religious life.
Does a Homosexual's Vow of Chastity Have Meaning?
Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "Everyone who has given up home, brothers or sisters, father or mother, wife or children or property for my sake will receive many times as much and inherit everlasting life" (Mt. 19:29). When a man takes vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience in religious life, he is attempting to fulfill these words of our Lord.
It is crucial to understand that when a man forgoes marrying a woman for the sake of the Kingdom of God, he is giving up to God something very good. Marriage to a woman is not evil. It is wonderful. A man could legitimately take a wife and still please the Lord. A man who chooses to give up woman gives to the Lord what he loves most. Consequently, the man's love of God is a total giving of himself. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II described celibacy as "the supreme form of that self-giving that constitutes the very meaning of human sexuality."
The fact that the vow of chastity is a free gift of oneself to God is the key to the magnificence of the vow of chastity. In fact, Jesus distinguishes those who freely give up sex for the sake of the Kingdom of God from those who are not interested in sex from birth and those who have lost this desire by the actions of others: "Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 19:12). Only those who have a desire to marry, or are attracted to the opposite sex, and give this up freely for the sake of the Kingdom of God, are fulfilling the evangelical meaning of the vow of chastity.
The celibate homosexual male also gives up sex for the Kingdom of God. But the homosexual must give up homosexual acts because these are, for one, clearly condemned in the Scriptures. St. Paul, for example, teaches about those "who suppress the truth by their wickedness.... Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own person the due penalty for their perversity" (Rom. 1:18, 26-27). Elsewhere, St. Paul teaches that "neither...boy prostitutes nor sodomites...will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10). The celibate homosexual male, therefore, doesn't need a vow to give up sex with men. He already has a divine law obliging him to do so.
Because the homosexual is already bound by the natural and divine law to renounce sexual relations with other males, he cannot renounce sexual activity with other males as a free gift to the Lord. And because he does not have a full and healthy attraction to women, he cannot renounce the possibility of sexual relations with women. One cannot renounce what one does not have!
What, then, is the meaning of a celibate homosexual male's vow of chastity? Here we are speaking about someone in whom "the condition has existed for such a length of time that it seems that he will develop no meaningful heterosexual interests." To bind oneself by a vow to abstain from something one is already bound to avoid (homosexual acts) is as superfluous as taking a vow to refrain from doing something one will not do anyway (heterosexual acts). In this case, the celibate homosexual male's vow of chastity is meaningless.
Would a Homosexual's Vow of Chastity Be Valid?
Jesus surely meant by chastity that a man would give up woman for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and that a woman would give up man for the sake of the Kingdom of God. For men, an exclusive attraction to women is a necessary prerequisite for a scripturally valid consecration to the Lord in celibacy. A homosexual male, therefore, does not have the means to answer the Lord's call to give up sex for the sake of the Kingdom of God. If a person cannot do what Jesus intended by the vow of chastity, then that person's vow of chastity is invalid. So, a homosexual male cannot make a scripturally valid consecration to the Lord in chastity through celibate religious life. Similar to the way that impotence is an impediment to valid marriage vows (can. 1084), so homosexual tendencies are an impediment to the vow of chastity in religious life.
What About "Mild" Homosexual Tendencies?
But what about the celibate homosexual male who has homosexual tendencies but has not engaged in homosexual acts: Would he be able to make a valid vow of chastity in religious life? The Linacre Institute points to some interesting findings on homosexuality in its excellent work After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests (Author House, 2006). After conducting an extensive review of the scientific literature on the subject, the Institute states that, "compared to the typical adult heterosexual male, the male with homosexual tendencies is very much a moving target who displays a wide variety of sexual behaviors and interests.... This means that the self-identified homosexual, as well as other homosexually experienced men, often have sex with women whereas the self-identified heterosexual rarely if ever has sex with males."
So, would a celibate male with a mild homosexual orientation be able to give up woman for the sake of the Kingdom of God? Yes, but it would not have the same meaning as it would for a celibate heterosexual male. Woman means much more to the celibate heterosexual male than she does to the man who is attracted to both men and women. The exclamation of Adam at the sight of Eve symbolizes that woman, like nothing else, is the delight of man: "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called 'woman,' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken" (Gen. 2:23). Woman complements man and "at last" fills up his loneliness like no other creature can. When one considers all creation, it is clear that woman is God's greatest gift to man.
The heterosexual male is totally attracted to woman. Thus, the celibate heterosexual male makes a total gift of himself to God by giving up woman in the "supreme form of that self-giving" to the Lord. But woman is not the total sexual interest of the celibate mildly homosexual male — his interest is divided between men and women. The celibate mildly homosexual male, therefore, is not able to emotionally appreciate woman as God's greatest gift to him. Consequently, the mildly homosexual male's act of giving up woman does not represent the total gift of himself to the Lord. Only the celibate heterosexual male can fulfill the Lord's call of giving up a wife and renouncing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
A celibate man with homosexual tendencies should not be permitted to enter religious life because (1) he will be entering a near occasion of sin; (2) his vow of chastity will be meaningless; and (3) his vow of chastity will be scripturally and canonically invalid. The Catechism states, "Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection" (#2359). One should not, however, confuse this vocation with the call to community religious life.
[Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM Cap., is the director of Catholic Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, where he is also chaplain for the Missionaries of Charity's shelter for homeless women. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made two series for Mother Angelica's EWTN: Crucial Questions, Catholic Answers and What Did Vatican II Really Teach? Fr. Scanlon's foregoing article, "The Validity of Homosexual Vows of Chastity in Religious Life," was originally published in New Oxford Review (March 2010), pp. 18-22, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]