It is always a risk for a once-a-week columnist, writing two or three weeks in advance of publication, to comment on a still-developing story. In this case, the story concerns the apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries, which is already under way.
Grave concerns were being expressed a few weeks ago about the goals of this visitation, and specifically whether there would be a papal mandate to identify and expel gay seminarians and to prohibit their admission to seminaries, whether sexually active or not.
In a column prepared for publication three weeks ago, I cited an interview published in the National Catholic Register in which Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, coordinator of the apostolic visitation, seemed to imply that gays are not welcome in seminaries, even those who have been chaste for 10 years or more.
Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for Time magazine and an openly gay Catholic layman, mounted one of the sharpest criticisms of this initiative. He cited a 1986 ruling by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, repudiating such thinking as "unfounded and demeaning."
Early last month, John Allen, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, disclosed, on the basis of assurances from a high-ranking curial official, that the Vatican document on homosexuals would not, in fact, require an absolute ban. It will insist only that seminary officials exercise "prudential judgment" in the matter.
According to this source, the Vatican is concerned about three categories of candidates for admission to seminaries. First, gays who have not demonstrated a capacity to live chaste lives for at least three years; second, homosexual candidates who are part of a "gay culture"; and third, candidates whose homosexual orientation is sufficiently "strong, permanent and univocal" as to make the all-male environment of a seminary too much of a risk.
But even with these three negative criteria, it would not necessarily follow that gay candidates would be denied admission to seminaries or be expelled once they are in. Seminary officials would still have the right and the responsibility to exercise their own "prudential judgment." There would be no rigid litmus test.
The same Vatican official noted that the concept of homosexuality is ambiguous, and that there is no agreed-upon definition. An "absolute policy," therefore, would be impossible to formulate and to apply.
He also emphasized that the document would not be concerned with sacramental theology. It would say nothing about the worthiness of homosexuals to function as priests. On the contrary, the Vatican is aware that there are a number of gay priests who live celibate lives and do fine pastoral work. Nor would the document have anything to do with priests (and bishops) who are already ordained.
This recent turn of events will come as a bitter disappointment to Catholics on the far right who have been quick to blame gay priests for the sexual-abuse scandal in the church. They have lobbied for nothing less than the exclusion and expulsion of all gays from seminaries. The logic of their position is that the church should also search out and expel gays already functioning as priests.
None of this is going to happen. At most, a few "dissident" seminary faculty members might be reassigned and some "activist" seminarians quietly encouraged to leave, but nothing more.
Benedict XVI will deserve full credit for this prudent stand-down.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.