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Leaders of Catholic Men’s Orders Voice Objections to Excluding Gays

By Laurie Goodstein

Responding to reports that the Vatican may be close to releasing a directive to exclude most gay candidates from entering the priesthood, leaders of Catholic men’s religious orders in the United States are planning to travel to Rome to voice their objections in person.

The trip is one of the steps by leaders of Roman Catholic religious orders to try to reassure priests and seminarians who have been rattled by news of a possible Vatican ban on the ordination of gay men.

Word of the trip was contained in an internal letter sent on Monday to leaders of religious orders from the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the major U.S. coordinating body for more than 250 leaders of Catholic religious orders, like the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits.

The letter was provided to The New York Times by a member of a religious order who said he was pleased by the superiors’ actions.

In addition, at least two leaders of Jesuit provinces have written letters to their priests and seminarians reassuring them that their sexual orientation is not an issue as long as they remain celibate and chaste.

“We’re not going to push anybody overboard,” said the Rev. John Whitney, provincial of the Oregon province of Jesuits, which includes 254 men in five Northwestern states.

The Vatican has not even released a document on the issue, which has been under discussion for more than 10 years. Several news outlets, including The New York Times, cited Vatican officials last week as saying that it would probably be released soon, but no Vatican order is certain until it is formally promulgated.

But several religious superiors said Thursday that even the anticipation that the church could exclude men from the priesthood because of their sexual orientation had prompted an outpouring of fear and concern among priests, gays and heterosexuals alike.

The superiors said their goal was to communicate to their men that they understood the effect that such a directive could have, and to convey that to the Vatican in hopes they could affect the document’s contents.

“This is an anxious moment. It creates difficult issues for people,” said the Rev. Paul Lininger, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, who signed the letter to his colleagues and spoke after being contacted by telephone. “But we want to be able to say to our men that we will be able to talk to various types of parties, and when the time comes we will communicate back to you.”

He said the letter was supposed to remain private, “because we don’t want to inflame situations, but we needed to respond.”

That the leaders of religious orders would step forward is not entirely surprising, said R. Scott Appleby, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

“Historically the superiors of religious orders have been more independent of the hierarchy,” he said. “They are relatively autonomous and responsible for their own company of priests and brothers.”

In addition, Appleby said, “They have their own long traditions of priestly recruiting and formation, and they feel responsible toward and protective of those traditions.”