The big news out of the Vatican today really isn't all that surprising, if you know anything about the Catholic Catechism. However, grab your local newspaper and look for this story anyway, because I will be surprised if you find coverage of it there.
The Washington Post online headline proclaims: "The Vatican reaffirms its position suggesting gay men should not be priests."
Yes, we are returning to Pope Francis and the most famous, or infamous, quotation, or sort-of quotation, from his papacy. I am referring, of course, to the 2013 off-the-cuff airplane press conference in which he spoke the phrase, "Who am I to judge?"
The pope said many things in that historic presser and news consumers have had a chance to read about 90 percent of what he actually said. Click here for previous GetReligion material about this media storm. By the way, here are the latest search engine results for these terms -- "Who am I to judge" and "Pope Francis." There are currently 7,520 hits in Google News and 140,000 in a general search.
So what did the Vatican say that is, or is not, in the news? Here is the top of a Washington Post "Acts of Faith" item, which is one of the only major-media references I could find to this story. I would be curious to know if this appears in the ink-on-paper edition:
People who have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who “support the so-called ‘gay culture’” cannot be priests in the Catholic church, the Vatican said in a new document on the priesthood.
The document said the church’s policy on gay priests has not changed since the last Vatican pronouncement on the subject in 2005. Some have been hoping for more openness toward gay priests ever since Pope Francis uttered perhaps the most famous sentence of his papacy -- when he was asked in 2013 about the subject of priests who are gay -- “Who am I to judge?”
But the Church’s Congregation for the Clergy, in a document approved by Francis, declared that bishops and clergy who oversee seminaries should indeed judge candidates’ sexuality and should ban them from becoming priests on that basis.
The document, called “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” has an official publication date of Dec. 8 but was posted online earlier.
Notice, right in the lede, that this Vatican document addresses some of the issues mentioned by Pope Francis in his 2013 presser.
First of all, the "deep-seated" roots of same-sex orientation -- locked in place DNA or evolving spectrum of behaviors -- remain rather mysterious. Discussing that fact is highly controversial. But there is also an emphasis on the "gay culture" question, which points to the more important question of whether future priests have taken stands that publicly oppose the teachings of the church.
If you look at the Pope Francis comments (full transcript here), you can see him wrestling with these issues. His conclusion points toward a basic fact: A priest who is taking his struggles, his sins, to Confession is doing the right thing. When a person is seeking God through repentance, said the pope, "Who am I to judge?" In other words, God is the judge of sincere repentance.
Writing that into a policy manual is difficult. However, the Post report quotes this statement from a 2005 Vatican document, a quote that is repeated in the new Vatican document:
The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.
So how does that function in the real world, especially in cultures -- think North America and Europe -- in which many Catholics simply ignore the teachings of the church?
It would appear that a kind of "local option" is in place, according to material offered by the Post, with local bishops and their colleagues playing a thumbs up or thumbs down role based on their own views on these issues.
Check out these two contrasting quotations:
“Not much has changed,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the editor at large of America magazine. “The people who were open to accepting healthy gay men into the seminaries will still do it. It does not negate the fact, nor could it, that there are thousands of healthy and hard-working and holy and celibate gay priests throughout the world.”
The issue, of course, is whether there is a doctrinal element to that word "healthy."
However, there is also this:
Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic University of America professor who has written books on psychological care for priests, said clergy have consulted him about whether they should admit specific men to seminaries based on their sexuality. The question they ask comes out of this Vatican language, Rossetti said: “I’ve had rectors sit me down and say, ‘What do I do with this guy? Is it deep-seated?’”
Rossetti said that his own recommendation would have to do not only with whether the man is or has been involved in a sexual relationship, but also with whether his sexuality is central to his identity or not. “If he’s marching in the gay pride parade, I’m going to say, ‘Mm, I don’t think so.’ ”
Once again, the crucial issue is a matter of doctrine and, for the pope, repentance, Confession and mercy.
So how does that fit into a mainstream news template that is usually based on public-square, if not openly political, discussions of gay rights? Not very well.
Perhaps this is why this new statement from the Vatican is not drawing much coverage in the mainstream press.
The Post religion team is to be commended for covering this story. However, I would like to know (attention GetReligion readers in the greater D.C. area) if this "Acts of Faith" feature appeared in the pages of the newspaper what landed on the doorsteps of actual subscribers.