Pope Francis made a seismic shift in Vatican policy this week. He appeared to accept the service of gay priests who don’t act on their sexuality.
The implications can’t be overstated. It has the potential to influence the views of those opposed to LGBTQ legal rights in many American states and countries throughout the world.
Celibacy is a requirement to serve in the Catholic priesthood. Hence, it shouldn’t matter if the priest is gay or straight. Hence, celibacy becomes the key, not the sexual orientation. This changes much of the discussion.
The comments raise questions about long-standing Vatican policies that are spiritually and emotionally abusive. The predecessor of Pope Francis, Benedict, said homosexuality, “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." Of course, science has long rebutted the notion homosexuality is a “disorder.”
In his comment, Francis spoke to the personhood of every individual, regardless of his calling to the priesthood. In doing so, he has set the stage for a lively, much needed discussion about human sexuality.
Will the Vatican now take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the priesthood? Will it permit celibate, but openly gay priests to serve? What message does it send to LGBTQ Catholics long marginalized by orthodox Catholics and conservative hierarchs, if openly, celibate gay priests serve the holy sacraments?
If a gay or straight priest acts on a need for physical intimacy and companionship, what makes it a sin, breaking the vow given to the church over celibacy?
If an openly gay, celibate priest is worthy to serve Eucharist, solemnize straight marriages, and perform the last rites at someone’s bedside, how is it possible two parishioners of the same gender can’t have a blessing of their union, though not called a marriage?
Will gay, celibate priests be able to speak out against such injustices as discrimination in housing and employment due to sexual identity? Will a lesbian teacher now be allowed to keep her job at a Catholic school?
Does acceptance of gay priests finally break the ugly, hateful stereotype someone gay is inclined to be a pedophile, long perpetuated by conservative elements in the Catholic Church, but disavowed by science?
The comments made by Francis have enormous implications, assuming the dogmatists in the Vatican, once they’ve recovered from their shock, don’t down play his words and reaffirm Catholic orthodoxy without appearing to disagree with the pope.
This will either be a period of holy revelation for Catholics or one of growing theological and philosophical friction. Either way, this may be a very exciting time for the Catholic Church.
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Paul Jesep is a policy analyst, corporate chaplain, and author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”.