Pope Benedict's antigay tendencies.

Pope Benedict's antigay tendencies.

Pope Benedict's antigay tendencies.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 29 2005 12:46 AM

Gland Inquisitor

Pope Benedict's antigay tendencies.

The Vatican's new policy on gay priests has been leaked. Officially, it proposes the incorrigibility of deeply rooted gay tendencies. Unofficially, it exposes the deeply rooted, incorrigible antigay tendencies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI.

For decades, while moderate clerics defended celibate gay priests, Ratzinger pressed for a purge of homosexuality not merely as an act or a lifestyle but as an orientation. Now he's in charge, and he's got ambitions beyond the church. He wants to cleanse us all, inside and out.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


To its credit, the Vatican has sought to incorporate modern psychology and biology in its discussions of homosexuality. The first document to do so was the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, issued in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Declaration tentatively accepted that some people were "definitively" gay due to "some kind of innate instinct" for which they weren't "personally responsible." Nevertheless, it maintained that according to scripture, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." The solution was to separate the involuntary from the voluntary—the inclination from the acts—by helping homosexuals to "overcome" their "condition." Eight years later, the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, acknowledging the role of "physiological or psychological factors" in homosexuality, drew the same conclusion.

But in 1986, the CDF changed its tune. In its Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, the CDF said liberals had twisted the meaning of the Declaration, applying "an overly benign interpretation … to the homosexual condition itself," as opposed to homosexual acts. The condition was the problem, said the Letter: When people "engage in homosexual activity, they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent."

Masquerading as a clarification, the Letter turned the Declaration upside down. On the old view, the inclination was disordered insofar as it tended toward the acts. On the new view, the acts were disordered insofar as they "confirmed" the inclination, and the inclination was "essentially" self-indulgent, regardless of its manifestation in acts.

What had happened to the CDF between 1975 and 1986? Ratzinger had taken charge of it. His name, absent from the Declaration, was on the Letter.

But Ratzinger didn't control the whole Vatican, and other departments continued to distinguish homosexual acts from the inclination. In 1990, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes, the first Vatican document on gay priests. It called for the exclusion not of celibate gays but of those who defended a non-celibate life and did "not seem to be able to overcome their homosexual tendencies."

In 1992, Ratzinger upped the ante. In an analysis of Legislative Proposals on the Non-discrimination of Homosexual Persons, the CDF repeated that "the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder" and extended this principle to civil law. " 'Sexual orientation' does not constitute a quality comparable to race, ethnic background, etc. in respect to non-discrimination," said the document. "There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account." The obvious areas were adoption and education, but the CDF sought broader precedents for antigay legislation in housing and employment, noting that "the state may restrict the exercise of rights, for example, in the case of contagious or mentally ill persons." If homosexual orientation was sick and infectious, why should purification stop at the priesthood?

Three months later, Pope John Paul II released the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ratzinger had chaired the Catechism's drafting committee beginning in 1986, the same year he issued the CDF's hard-edged Letter. But the Catechism, unlike the Letter, was a six-year product of "consultation among all Catholic Bishops, their Episcopal Conferences or Synods, and theological and catechetical institutes"—John Paul called it the "symphony of the faith"—and the difference showed. The Catechism dealt with "homosexual acts" and "homosexual tendencies" in separate paragraphs. It framed gay tendencies as a "trial" for their bearers and concluded, "Homosexual persons are called to chastity." This would be hard for them, but it would be morally sufficient. Through "self-mastery" and "prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection," it said.

Other bodies within the hierarchy defended this view against the CDF. In 1995, the Pontifical Council for the Family declared, "A distinction must be made between a tendency that can be innate and acts of homosexuality that 'are intrinsically disordered.' " In 1998, the Congress on Vocations to the Priesthood and to Consecrated Life in Europe said the crucial test for a prospective priest was to be "able to control these weaknesses." The 1998 document, circumventing Ratzinger's 1986 and 1992 pronouncements, invoked the recommendation of the 1990 Directives "to reject not [candidates] who have such tendencies but rather 'those who cannot manage to control such tendencies.' "