At the Vatican, Exceptions Make the Rule
- September 27, 2005
At the Vatican, Exceptions Make the Rule
By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr., Op-Ed Contributor
THE forthcoming Vatican document on gays in seminaries will unleash
a wrenching debate about Catholicism and homosexuality, but one
thing it is certain not to mean is that in the future there will be
no gays in the priesthood. The continued presence of gays in the
priesthood will be the product not just of difficulties in
enforcement, or the dishonesty of potential candidates, but also of
Although this is a difficult point for many Anglo-Saxons to grasp,
when the Vatican makes statements like "no gays in the priesthood,"
it doesn't actually mean "no gays in the priesthood." It means, "As
a general rule, this is not a good idea, but we all know there will
Understanding this distinction requires an appreciation of Italian
concepts of law, which hold sway throughout the thought world of the
Vatican. The law, according to such thinking, expresses an ideal. It
describes a perfect state of affairs from which many people will
inevitably fall short. This view is far removed from the typical
Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to dictate what people
While Italians grumble about lawlessness, fundamentally they believe
in subjectivity. Anyone who's tried to negotiate the traffic in
Italian cities will appreciate the point. No law, most Italians
believe, can capture the infinite complexity of human situations,
and it's more important for the law to describe a vision of the
ideal community than for it to be rigidly obeyed. Italians have
tough laws, but their enforcement is enormously forgiving. Not for
nothing was their equivalent of the attorney general's office once
known as the Ministry of Justice and Grace.
The British historian Christopher Dawson has described this as
the "erotic" spirit of cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism.
Catholic cultures are based on the passionate quest for spiritual
perfection, Dawson writes, unlike the "bourgeois" culture of the
United States, which, shaped by Protestantism and based on practical
reason, gives priority to economic concerns. As one senior Vatican
official put it to me some time ago, "Law describes the way things
would work if men were angels."
This value system means that while Vatican officials often project a
stern moral image on the public stage, in intimate settings they can
be strikingly patient and understanding. Policymakers in the Vatican
tend not to get as worked up as many Americans by the large numbers
of Catholics in the developed world who flout church regulations on
birth control, for example. It's not that Vatican officials don't
believe in the regulations. Rather, they believe the very nature of
an ideal is that many people will fail to realize it.
Of course, one can debate whether a ban on birth control, or on gays
in seminaries, ought to be the ideal. The point is that although
Vatican officials will never say so out loud, few actually expect
those rules to be upheld in all cases.
Some in the Anglo-Saxon world see this as a form of hypocrisy: the
church apparently issues laws while winking at disobedience. But
Vatican officials view it instead as a realistic concession to
fallen human nature.
On background, some such officials have said that the point of the
forthcoming document is to challenge the conventional wisdom in the
church, which holds that as long as a prospective priest is capable
of celibacy, it doesn't matter whether he's gay or straight. Vatican
policymakers and some American bishops believe that's naïve. In an
all-male environment, they contend, a candidate whose sexual
orientation is toward men faces greater temptations and hence a
greater cause for concern.
That's a debatable proposition, but it does not add up to an
absolute conviction that no gay man should ever be ordained a
priest. Rather, it means that bishops should take a hard look at
such candidates, but in the end, they'll still use their best
Those determined to apply this decree in uncompromising fashion will
be able to do so. But while the Catholic priesthood of the future
may include fewer homosexuals - and it will certainly have fewer gay
seminarians and priests willing to speak openly about their
situation - it will not be "gay free."
On the ground, as bishops and seminary teams make decisions, many
will still draw on that classic bit of Italian clerical
casuistry: "If the pope were here, he would understand."
John L. Allen Jr. is the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic