TV & Radio
September 30, 2005
Americans Plan Rome Trip Over Ban on Gay Priests
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN - New York Times
Responding to reports that the Vatican may be close to releasing a directive to exclude most gay candidates from entering the priesthood, leaders of Roman Catholic men's religious orders in the United States are planning to travel to Rome to voice their objections in person.
The trip is one of the steps by leaders of Catholic religious orders to try to reassure priests and seminarians who have been rattled by news of a possible Vatican ban on the ordination of gay men.
Word of the trip, which has not been scheduled, was in an internal letter sent on Monday to leaders of religious orders from the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the key American coordinating body for more than 250 leaders of Catholic religious orders, like the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The letter was provided to The New York Times by a member of a religious order who said he was pleased by the superiors' actions.
In addition, at least two leaders of Jesuit provinces have written to their priests and seminarians reassuring them that their sexual orientation is not an issue as long as they remain celibate and chaste.
"We're not going to push anybody overboard," said the Rev. John Whitney, head of the Oregon province of Jesuits, which includes 254 men in five Northwestern states.
The Vatican has not even released a document on the issue, which has been under discussion for more than 10 years. Several news outlets, including The Times, reported last week that Vatican officials had said it would most likely be released soon, but no Vatican directive is certain until it is formally promulgated.
Still, several religious superiors said on Thursday that even the anticipation that the church could exclude men from the priesthood because of their sexual orientation had prompted an outpouring of fear and concern among priests - gays and heterosexuals alike. The superiors said their goal was to communicate to their men that they understood the impact that such a directive could have, and to convey that to the Vatican in hopes they could have an impact on the document's contents.
"This is an anxious moment; it creates difficult issues for people," said the Rev. Paul Lininger, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, who signed the letter to his colleagues and spoke by telephone. "But we want to be able to say to our men that we will be able to talk to various types of parties, and when the time comes we will communicate back to you."
Father Lininger said the letter was supposed to remain private, "because we don't want to inflame situations, but we needed to respond."
That the leaders of religious orders would step forward is not entirely surprising, said R. Scott Appleby, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
"Historically the superiors of religious orders have been more independent of the hierarchy," he said. "They are relatively autonomous and responsible for their own company of priests and brothers, so they're more accustomed to looking out for their own."
Some Catholics have said they would welcome the ban because they attribute the sexual abuse scandal to gay priests who preyed on young men.
But Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Vatican began examining whether to ordain gays long before the abuse scandal broke in 2002, and not because of pedophilia.
"The church is not saying anything like that," Monsignor Maniscalco said. "Pedophilia is its own psychosexual illness, and has its own kind of syndrome. This is looking at another issue, which is the training for celibacy and the ability to live a celibate life. We live in an age in which people are told to express themselves, in which the gay rights movement says to come to grips with your orientation and to live it. And in that environment, there can be confusion, even in seminaries."
The provincial of the New York province of Jesuits, the Rev. Gerald J. Chojnacki, also sent a letter to his priests on Monday denouncing any move to exclude homosexuals.
"We know that God does not discriminate," Father Chojnacki wrote. "We know that gay men who have responded to the call have served the church well as priests and religious - and so why would we be asked to discriminate based on orientation alone against those whom God has called and invited?"
He wrote that he had participated in the funerals of "some very fine and distinguished Jesuits" who were also gay men. "I find it insulting to demean their memory and their years of service by even hinting that they were unfit for priesthood because of their sexual orientation," wrote Father Chojnacki, who leads one of the largest Jesuit provinces in the country, with 437 men.
This letter was addressed to "Brothers and Friends in the Lord," and has been circulated even outside the New York Jesuit province by priests encouraged by its message. One such priest shared it with The Times.
Father Chojnacki did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokesman for the New York province, Peter Feuerherd, said the letter had been directed to New York Jesuits "and was intended to address their concerns."
About 15,000 priests belong to religious orders, approximately one-third of those serving in the United States. The other two-thirds belong to dioceses, whose local leaders are bishops. Religious orders also include brothers, who are not ordained as members of the clergy.
Religious order priests serve in many capacities: teachers and professors, missionaries and professionals in many fields and in parishes. There are also contemplative priests and brothers, who devote themselves primarily to prayer.
Many religious orders, like many diocesan seminaries, say their admissions policies do not discriminate against candidates on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Said Father Whitney, the Oregon provincial, "We continue to go by the standard we have always gone by, which is that our orientation is toward chastity, and that is the orientation we most care about."
Bay Area, US: Gay Catholics keeping faith despite Vatican - SF Chronicle