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Does Benedict Oppose Gay Priests?

Andrew Brown thinks so, based on the relevant passage in Seewald’s book. I hesitate to comment with any conviction until I have read the full passage myself, but the published extracts are disturbing and important. Up to now, there have been some signs of a more rational approach to homosexuality under this papacy, but some of these views strike me as just wackadoodle. Benedict is widely acclaimed as a great and subtle theologian, but he could do with some lessons in basic facts of gender and sexuality.

For example:

We could say, if we wanted to put it like this, that evolution has brought forth sexuality for the purpose of reproducing the species.

If he wishes to reason from evolutionary biology, he should read some evolutionary biologists. Joan Roughgarden, for instance. Both she and Bruce Bagemihl have shown that evolution is not purpose-driven for anything at all, least of all that of reproduction. Evolution is an arbitrary process, not a strategy, that works by creating diversity. Out of this diversity, heterosexual coupling and reproduction is one common by-product – but same sex coupling, same sex reproduction, and even adoption by same sex couples are also outcomes of that diversity. Furthermore, simple observation in the animal world also shows that in complete contradiction to Catholic doctrine, sexual diversity, even among opposite sex pairs, is by no means restricted to procreation. There is a great deal of non-reproductive sex too, for purposes ranging from group conflict reduction, through social bonding, to simple sexual pleasure. The animals, it is clear, pay scant regard to the Catholic Catechism.

This is the it that really winds me up:

“….  homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity, from the intrinsic nature of priestly being.”

The clear implication here is that gay men are “estranged” from a proper sense of paternity.  Hoo boy! This betrays some really nasty ideas about the nature of priesthood, with its glorification of “paternity” over “maternity”. As any number of people have observed over the abuse crisis, the priesthood would be a great deal more caring if we allowed some more maternal qualities into it – but I leave the ladies to take up that theme. I am more concerned by the cock-eyed idea that gay men lack “a proper sense of paternity”. There are millions of gay daddies out there -just you try repeating this crap to their children (mine, for instance).  The presence of a strong sense of paternity is also amply demonstrated by the strong demand by gay male couples to be approved as adoptive parents, a demand which is confirmed by the strenuous and wrong-headed efforts by some Catholic bishops to prevent legislative approval for gay adoption. If there were no sense of paternity, there would be no demand, and no need to oppose the legislation.

The evidence from the real world is that gay men can indeed be fathers, some of them are so, others want to be so  – and the evidence from empirical research, not theological ivory towers, is that collectively they are at least as good as any others (even in some animal species). Some individuals are exceptional parents. The suggestion that their lack of a “proper sense of paternity” excludes them from the priesthood is just plain hooey.

Then there’s this:

If someone has deep-seated homosexual inclinations–and it is still an open question whether these inclinations are really innate or whether they arise in early childhood–if, in any case, they have power over him, this is a great trial for him.

If he had made any attempt to investigate the real experience of these people with “deep-seated tendencies” he would surely known that the “trials” they experience are not based the orientation itself (which many impartial experts and many societies see as a source of spiritual strength), but the prejudice and homophobia they encounter – such as the profound ignorance displayed by Benedict himself.

The three statements I have commented on share an important characteristic: they are used to support major decisions of church discipline and sexual ethics, but are based on absolutely no actual evidence, none whatever. This is what gives theology a bad name.

“The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”

— Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason

Paine overstates his case, but the examples above show he has a point.

Benedict has often emphasized that theology needs to be based on both faith and reason. He is right – but I wish, oh how I wish, that he could apply his widely acknowledged powers of reason to something based on, you know, evidence, from science or anthropology. Ground it, in fact, in reality.


(Here are the full extracts quoted by Andrew Brown in the Guardian. Read the full article, with his useful commentary, at the Guardian “Comment is Free“)

“The Congregation for Education issued a decision a few years ago to the effect that homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity, from the intrinsic nature of priestly being. The selection of candidates to the priesthood must therefore be very careful.

The greatest attention is needed here in order to prevent the intrusion of this kind of ambiguity and to head off a situation where the celibacy of priests would practically end up being identified with the tendency to homosexuality.”

“Sexuality has an intrinsic meaning and direction, which is not homosexual. We could say, if we wanted to put it like this, that evolution has brought forth sexuality for the purpose of reproducing the species. The same thing is true from a theological point of view as well. The meaning and direction of sexuality is to bring about the union of man and woman

And, in this way, to give humanity posterity, children, a future. This is the determination internal to the essence of sexuality. Everything else is against sexuality’s intrinsic meaning and direction. This is a point we need to hold firm, even if it is not pleasing to our age …
Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation.

Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation. It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway.”

“The issue at stake here is the intrinsic truth of sexuality’s significance in the constitution of man’s being. If someone has deep-seated homosexual inclinations–and it is still an open question whether these inclinations are really innate or whether they arise in early childhood–if, in any case, they have power over him, this is a great trial for him, just as other trials can afflict other people as well. But this does not mean that homosexuality thereby becomes morally right. Rather, it remains contrary to the essence of what God originally willed … For, in the end, their attitude toward man and woman is somehow distorted, off centre, and, in any case, is not within the direction of creation of which we have spoken.”

“are human beings with their problems and their joys, that as human beings they deserve respect, even though they have this inclination, and must not be discriminated against because of it. Respect for man is absolutely fundamental and decisive.”


8 Responses

  1. It strikes me that Benedict is not referencing parental ability in general, but heterosexual paternal parenting in the Old Testament sense. In this sense it’s not about orientation but the ability to act as an appropriately gendered male. This would then have nothing to do with biology and everything to do with demonstrating the proper enculturation of one’s gender.

    I can also see where these comments are just another back handed way to blame gays for the abuse crisis–in spite of the fact the overwhelming testimony from credibly accused priests is that they consider themselves heterosexual.

    In any event, the man has issues with his own sexuality and he doth project too loudly.

    • It strikes me that the Pope is using the term “paternal” in the sense of being a father to the congregatation, as opposed to the sexual term. What he is really saying is that someone shouldn’t be a priest if he strong sexual orientations. The orientation is irrelevant.

      • David, is the orientation is irrelevant, why is he quite specifically applying it only to homosexuals? It is quite clear that his use of the word paternal is not based on the strength of the sexual feeling, but on the concept of parentage in the sense of family. He is saying that to be a father to a congregation, a man must have an innate paternal instinct – and he implies that a homosexual, because he lacks that instinct, is automatically disqualified.

        One can reasonably argue that he is right, or that he is wrong. I cannot see that there is any other way of interpreting his words, which are clear.

      • Terence,

        What he said is far from a model of clarity, which is unusual for this Pope. He is usually quite clear, even if it is often nuanced.

        He seems to be talking about four different topics, without putting them in any ordering of importance, or working through the underlying premises. There is the celibacy issue, the homosexual orientation, the “proper” sense of paternity, and the sexuality issue.

        The above discussion hints at the Catechismal weakness to the approach of sexuality in general and homosexual acts in particular.

        My thought is that Benedict has not been able to systematically work out how sexual activity outside of procreation fits into God’s plan for sexuality. There is no obvious answer to what God’s plan is for sexuality outside its obvious procreative use. The issue is easier for heterosexual activity – it has to be within the marriage context, and can’t be actively opposed to procreation (which creates all kinds of problems, but is easy to rationally justify).

        The problem is more vexing for homosexual acts, which can never be objectively ordered to procreation, but which may be, nevertheless, the product of a deep-seated inclination from birth, an inclination that God has apparently willed. I think Benedict’s solution is chastity until he can work out a better solution. Sexuality then becomes a cross to bear.

        He describes the problem thusly, “The issue at stake here is the intrinsic truth of sexuality’s significance in the constitution of man’s being.”. How to craft an intrinsic truth about sexuality’s significance for THIS particular man or woman does not lend itself to an easy formula.

        • David you make excellent points. Pope Benedict probably needs to find a different starting point. He could start by conceiving sexuality as a sub set of relationship, not a starting point. Neurological development seems to be triggered by forming relationships with others. Sexuality comes on line after the neurological foundations for developing relationships have been laid down. Part of that earleir process also includes the ability to determine personal boundaries. Sexual abuse is so hard to get over precisely because it short circuits the natural neural development of forming healthy personal boundaries.

          As long as ‘right’ sex is the starting point the church will never be able to reconcile sex and relationship because healthy adult relationships can form outside of heterosexual sexual attraction.

          My other thought is that Jesus was first and formost a teacher. He never was a sexual partner or a parent. The teacher/student relationship can be very intense and very fruitful and is usually not dependent on orientation or gender definition in it’s healthiest expression.

          I am at a loss to explain why ‘paternal’ has replaced ‘teacher’ in Benedict’s thinking, unless it’s to emphasise gender and orientation.

        • Colleen,

          Thank you.

          Even if the Pope needs a new starting point, there is little chance that he is going to change at his age, and in his position. However, all is not lost, especially from the perspective of one wishing to take a more liberal interpretation of the Pope’s teachings.

          If the Pope were to ask me, I would suggest that he consider two things: first, the Catechism implies that there is a leap from objectively disordered to morally evil where no such leap is possible; second, the Catechism implies a leap from objectively disordered for mankind in general to disordered for the subject (the particular man or woman), a result that is empirically false. The implications need to be removed so because it is causing confusion amongst the faithful.

          My arguments go as follows:
          Objectively disordered does not equal morally evil –
          Men and woman are ordered by God so that they can procreate – true. Any act which is not directed to procreation is objectively disordered because those acts don’t further God’s plan for procreation – true. But, that doesn’t prove the immorality of the homosexual act. Obviously, some objectively ordered acts are morally wrong – rape being the most obvious example. Thus, the moral character of the act has to contain factors in addition to objective order. Further, the non-act (chastity) produces the same consequences for procreation that the homosexual act produces – thus either result can be said to be disordered. Additionally, it is self-evident that would be more morally reprehensible for a gay person to engage in heterosexual acts for the sake of the objective order than it would be for that person to engage in homosexual acts consistent with his or her “deep-seated inclinations”. In the latter case, “God’s order” appears to be different than the “objective order”.

          On the second point, while mankind needs to have objectively ordered sexuality to survive, it does not follow that a subject (person) should order his or her behavior to the objective order, especially when God has created that person differently, or the circumstances dictate otherwise. Nor does it necessarily follow that a person should have a call to chastity when he or she is disinclined to follow the objective order.

          What Benedict seems to be guarding against is the thought that there is no objective order to sexuality. Benedict has been fairly consistent in all areas of belief in maintaining the idea that morality has to be objective if it is to contain truth. For example, Benedict has chided Western thinkers for suggesting that life itself has no objective order.

          I think he is correct in maintaining that sexuality is a gift from God, and not a personal commodity to be bought, used, or sold to meet personal desires. Sexuality is more than a subset of personal relationships. It is a subset of a personal relationship with God, to be used in a manner pleasing to God.

          Just like Benedict did with the condom’s issue, I think that time has come for him to begin to develop a “moralization” of the sexuality issues so that sexuality issues extend beyond the obvious objectively ordered plan of God, and into the whole plan of God. That moralization process will help inform consciences on how to proceed when faced with two apparently conflicting principles of action.

  2. I think the Pope Benedict really needs some instruction on this topic. This is somewhat depressing. God give me strength.

    • Either some instruction, Mark – or some real world experience.

      More realistically, he and the rest of the gang really need to hear from those of us who have had some experience. We need to be more open in church, to our fellow parishioners, and to our pastors. Let them hear from us, loud and clear, that the message they are trying to promote just doesn’t wash, it is totally lacking in any sound foundation.

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