An unsquared circle

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master of the Dominicans, made a courteous attempt to square the circle by giving a “positive” assessment of the Vatican’s Instruction on homosexuality and the priesthood, while seeking to be respectful towards gays. “[W]e may presume”, he says, “that God will continue to call both homosexuals and heterosexuals to the priesthood because the Church needs the gifts of both.”

Fr. Radcliffe asks what the Instruction means when it talks about a “deep-seated homosexual tendency” as a disqualification for priesthood.

It could . . . be interpreted as having a permanent homosexual orientation. But this cannot be correct since, as I have said, there are many excellent priests who are gay and who clearly have a vocation from God. Perhaps it is best understood as meaning that someone whose sexual orientation is so central to his self-perception as to be obsessive, dominating his imagination. This would indeed pose questions as to whether he would be able to live happily as a celibate priest. But any heterosexual who was so focused on his sexuality would have problems too. What matters is sexual maturity rather than orientation.

I agree, whether or not celibabcy were an issue, that maturity is far more important than sexual orientation (which is, in fact irrelevant). But I doubt that in practice the Roman Catholic church will interpret “deep-seated homosexual tendency” to mean what Fr. Radcliffe suggests. The Instruction provides opportunity for injustice.

Then, Fr Radcliffe continues,

there is the issue of supporting “gay culture”. It is right that seminarians or priests should not go to gay bars and that seminaries should not develop a gay subculture. This would be to celebrate as central to their lives what is not fundamental. Seminarians should learn to be at ease with whatever is their sexual orientation, content with the heart that God has given them, but any sort of sexual sub-culture, gay or straight, would be subversive of celibacy. A macho subculture filled with heterosexual innuendo would be just as inappropriate.

But does supporting a “gay culture” mean only that? As the document says, the Church must oppose “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals, just as it does racial discrimination. That means that all priests must be prepared to side with gay people if they suffer oppression, and be seen to be on their side. . . . If one becomes involved in any opposition to discrimination, then one is liable to be misunderstood. It is a risk that one must sometimes take.

Indeed so. But the Rainbow Sash movement has found that the slightest protest may incur instant exclusion from Communion, for example. Could a priest wear a sash?


there is the question of “spiritual fatherhood”. This is not a concept with which I am familiar. Can only heterosexuals offer this? . . . There is little evidence of muscular Christianity in the Vatican. If the role of the priest was to be a model of masculinity, then he would be relevant to less than half of the congregation and one could therefore argue that women should also be ordained as role models of femininity. I presume that the “spiritual fatherhood” is above all exercised through the care of the people and the preaching of a life-giving fertile word, but neither has any connection with sexual orientation.

Exactly. I also agree with Fr. Radcliffe’s essential point when he says that

If we are to form priests who will live their celibacy fruitfully then they must be at ease with themselves, in all their emotional complexity, without being deluded into thinking that it is the core of our identity. That is Christ. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2)


Our society is obsessed by sex and the Church should offer a model of a sane but not compulsive acceptance of sexuality. The Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that priests should talk about sex “with moderation rather than copiousness”. We should be more attentive to whom our seminarians may be inclined to hate than whom they love. Racialism, misogyny and homophobia would all be signs that someone could not be a good model of Christ.

These things hold true for any Christian, ordained or not, celibate or not.

So far so very good. But, Fr Radcliffe does not address the statement in the Instruction that people “who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture [whatever these things may be taken to mean] . . . ” in fact, find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from properly relating to men and women.” Does Fr. Radcliffe really believe this to be true? For in these words, the Instruction is deeply offensive.