THE CATHOLIC Church seems to be unraveling at an astonishing rate. The latest threat to its future comes next week, when the Vatican's Congregation on Catholic Education officially begins scapegoating gay priests -- believed to make up 30% or more of the U.S. Catholic clergy -- for its sex abuse scandals.
That's when the Vatican has said it will issue regulations banning men who are actively homosexual or have "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from the priesthood. Catholic seminarians -- priests in training -- who say they are gay will be ordained, under the new rules, only if they have not had sex with another man for four years..
As a former priest who left the church to marry and raise a family, I am sadly sympathetic to gay priests who may quit rather than put up with these absurd and unenforceable homophobic requirements for ordination.
Isn't it enough that the church insists on a celibacy vow? Must it now also insist -- for gays only -- on celibacy even before entering the priesthood?
The greatest challenge to the Catholic Church is not gay priests, it's the Catholic Church. The record is consistently dismal. In the late 1960s, the Vatican ignored reality and banned birth control. Droves left the church. In the 1970s and '80s, heterosexual priests like myself who wanted families and had hoped for a change in the rules on celibacy were told to pack up and find work elsewhere. We did, some 20,000 strong.
The result has been a dire shortage of priests and a big increase in the percentage of priests who are gay, a function of mathematics and social trends.
Now the Vatican has cooked up this brilliant idea: exclude homosexuals from the priesthood. According to media reports, the new directive will give gays a chance of being ordained if they have "overcome" their homosexual tendencies for four years before becoming priests. If a priest's "disorder" is deemed to be "transient" and he forswears gay culture and behavior, he could be cleared for ordination -- the "it was only a phase" provision.
It's not completely clear yet how the new rules will be implemented and administered. But how does one prove that something didn't happen, or that one didn't have impure thoughts? This new policy may well be the tipping point in the church's long and painful decline in the U.S. The many ordained priests who are gay will feel pressure to leave the church or, more likely, go further underground. Others will be falsely suspected or accused. Many sincere aspirants to the priesthood will be discouraged from pursuing a clerical career by the prospect of such an unpleasant and intrusive ordeal.
What's wrong with being a gay priest? If you're celibate, as the Catholic Church already requires you to be, then what's the difference if you're gay or straight at heart?
Perhaps most important, we should ask why this policy is directed only at homosexual priests. Yes, most of the sex abuse cases documented in the church scandal involved incidents between priests and boys. But I've read some of the grand jury documents and have been struck by the fact that many priests abused young schoolgirls as well. Yet this new instruction from the Vatican seems to give a free pass to heterosexuals who have been sexually active.
The only rational response is to reflect on how insane church leaders have become. In the last several decades they have failed miserably whenever they have been asked to solve problems and move the faithful on to greater commitment. They have consistently insulted married couples with the birth control issue, ignored the legitimate aspirations of priests and women, and now seek a new role as sex police.
I hope that gay priests and their gay bishops will choose not to run or hide but instead, as some suggest, call a strike, a work stoppage. The American Catholic clergy needs to send a strong message to Pope Benedict: Tear down this wall of prejudice! Catholic clergy everywhere should declare the new regulations dead on arrival at every seminary and diocese. It may be the last chance the church has to save itself from becoming completely irrelevant.