Understanding Pope Francis’ controversial remarks on homosexuality in the priesthood

By Kevin Clarke, December 05, 2018

In a new book based on interviews with a Spanish priest, Pope Francis says that homosexuality in the priesthood is “something that worries me” and a “very serious” question. He remarks that gay priests who cannot maintain their vows of celibacy should leave the priesthood rather than live “double lives,” advises against admitting gay men into seminaries if their homosexuality is “deep seated” and suggests that a societal perception of homosexuality as “fashionable” has permeated Catholic culture.
The pope’s comments have provoked consternation among previous admirers, who worry that he is walking back the more pastoral approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics that has been his hallmark, and rejoicing among some of his usual critics, who complain that his persistent emphasis on mercy can sometimes break church doctrine. Others likely found themselves simply perplexed in the wake of this latest controversy. Is this the same guy who asked, “Who am I to judge?” in deflecting questions about a gay priest in 2013?

If homosexual priests who stumble on celibacy should leave the priesthood, Catholics and church observers asked on social media, what about heterosexual priests who similarly struggle with their vows?

“Pope Francis has, not for the first time, been misunderstood, and a few headline writers gave people the wrong impression,” America editor at large James Martin, S.J., said in an interview conducted by email on Dec. 3. “But his comments were rather confusing to begin with.

“He first speaks about gay priests expressing their ‘affections’—that is, being sexually active—which he obviously condemns,” Father Martin notes. “He says that they shouldn’t be accepted into seminaries or religious orders, but then he says that gay priests should be ‘impeccably responsible,’ leading to the conclusion that he accepts them if they are celibate…. My sense is that he is essentially reminding gay priests to be celibate—like all priests are called to be.”

The pope’s suggestion that “homosexuality” had become “fashionable” in contemporary Western culture startled and pained many. “I can’t speak for Pope Francis, but I’m assuming by ‘fashionable’ he means that one sees it more and more in public life,” says Father Martin. “But if he means that one is gay simply because it’s ‘fashionable,’ that’s not only wrong but hurtful and perpetuates the idea that gay people ‘choose’ their orientation. That would mean he’s going against not only every reputable psychiatrist but the lived experience of L.G.B.T. people.”

But had the pope really strayed far from what the church has already said about gay men in the priesthood or in preparation for it?

“Not really,” says Father Martin. “But it’s important to see his comments in context with his past remarks on gay priests and L.G.B.T. people. His most famous quote, ‘Who am I to judge?’ was a response to a question about gay priests. And, more recently, he told his friend Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay man and abuse victim, ‘God made you like this.’”

The psychologist Thomas Plante, the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University Professor in psychology at Santa Clara University in California, tracks the source of the pope’s latest headline-generating contretemps back to 2005, when the Vatican released an instruction on admitting men with “homosexual tendencies” to the priesthood. That document indeed proposes the same distinctions Francis briefly attempted to parse in his book-length dialogue with Fernando Prado, C.M.F., The Strength of Vocation: Consecrated Life Today—that while it was acceptable to admit candidates who had experienced “transitory” homosexuality into Catholic seminaries, candidates with “deep seated homosexuality” should be prevented from entering, if always treated with sensitivity and respect.

The problem is such distinctions do not hold up well under modern psychological scrutiny. “Sometimes our beloved church gets burdened by these documents in some respects,” Dr. Plante says. “I think the folks in the Roman collars and red hats writing these documents could use a little help from professionals in the field,” he adds. The instruction’s language does not reflect “what we really know now about human sexuality and homosexuality and how it all works.”

Dr. Plante has conducted thousands of evaluations of seminary applicants and has essentially thrown his hands up—along with the seminary directors who consult with him—in trying to make the distinctions the Vatican apparently insists on.

“The critical issue here is that people’s sexual orientation, from a psychological view and a risk-factor view in terms of the clergy abuse crisis, is irrelevant,” Dr. Plante says. “It is how they manage their impulses that’s important. How they manage their desires, their impulses, gay or straight—that’s really the issue.”

When the pope speaks off the cuff on such a charged subject, Dr. Plante worries that “homosexual priests get scapegoated because of the fact that they’re gay, not the fact of what they are doing with their orientation….It is who they are, not what they do, and that is a really big problem.

Dr. Plante wonders why the pope and other church leaders do not more often reach out to professionals in psychology or human sexuality before they speak out on the subject. “You want clarity here because it is such a hot topic,” he says. “There is so much emotion, so much anger and hostility” around the issue. “You have to take a deep breath and be very clear about your communication because when you are not really clear, other people are going to project their own narratives, their own storylines,” he says, voicing concern that some will use the pope’s imprecision as “ammunition” to bash gay men in the priesthood.

Father Martin agrees that the use of “imprecise language” or comments that “seem to contradict one another” can confuse people “and, in some cases, demoralize them.”
“They also tend to then be used by ‘both sides’ and create further division in the church,” he says. “We all speak off the cuff, but I suppose when you’re the pope those off-the-cuff remarks are more likely to cause damage.”

Dr. Plante does not believe, as some headlines suggest, that Pope Francis or the Holy See wishes to drive gay men out of the priesthood. “Let’s see how that works out, if we really had an inquisition and took out all the priests who identify as gay,” he says. Dr. Plante speculates that would mean a reduction of “one-third to half” of the priesthood and the removal and humiliation of “folks who have done nothing wrong and are managing their impulses, something you have to do whether you are married or celibate or straight clergy.”

“Pope Francis, I love him, but he is not a mental health professional,” Dr. Plante says. “Why not talk to the professionals in the field?… There are many engaged Catholics out there who want to help and know something about this stuff. Let us help you. We mean well and we want to help the church.

“If the Vatican had a leaky roof,” Dr. Plante says, “you wouldn’t send a guy in a Roman collar and a red hat up on a ladder to fix it, would you?”


Kevin Clarke is America’s chief correspondent and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).