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At the Vatican, Exceptions Make the Rule

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    September 27, 2005 At the Vatican, Exceptions Make the Rule By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr., Op-Ed Contributor Rome THE forthcoming Vatican document on gays in seminaries
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      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
      be exceptions."

      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
      actually do.

      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
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