Word that a soon-to-be-released Vatican document will signal homosexuals are unwelcome in Roman Catholic seminaries even if they are celibate has devastated gay clergy - and raised doubts among conservatives about whether an outright ban can be enforced.
A Vatican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the document has not been released, said Thursday the upcoming "instruction" from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education will reaffirm the church's belief that homosexuals should not be ordained.
In recent decades, Vatican officials have stated several times that gays should not become priests because their sexual orientation is "intrinsically disordered" and makes them unsuitable for ministry.
The latest document is scheduled to be distributed within weeks, just as an evaluation of all 229 American seminaries gets under way under the direction of the same Vatican agency developing the seminary statement.
The review, called an Apostolic Visitation, was ordered by Pope John Paul II in response to the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis which erupted in 2002. Among the questions the evaluators will ask is whether "there is evidence of homosexuality in the seminary," according to the agency's guide for the inspections.
The Rev. Thomas Krenik, who taught for 10 years in St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and wrote the guidebook Formation for Priestly Celibacy, worries a blanket ban on gay priest-candidates will re-create the very conditions the Vatican wants to eradicate.
"For some men who happened to be homosexually oriented, they would go further in the closet," the Rev. Krenik said. "That would be my fear, that this could become an even worse problem."
A gay American priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from church leaders, said he and other gay clergy and seminarians felt "absolute horror" when they heard about the anticipated ban.
"I've spoken to gay priests who feel demoralized. I've heard straight priests say that they're embarrassed by it. I've heard priests both straight and gay seriously considering leaving," he said. "They couldn't believe that after centuries of either explicit or implicit welcoming of celibate gay clergy that the church would turn its back on them."
James Hitchcock, a church historian at St. Louis University and conservative commentator on contemporary Catholicism, said he thinks the ban is necessary considering a study the U.S. bishops commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found most of the alleged abuse victims since 1950 were adolescent boys. But he conceded the policy will be difficult to enforce, since candidates for the priesthood can hide their sexual orientation.