updated 12/5/2005 2:12:06 AM ET 2005-12-05T07:12:06

A Vatican letter sent privately to Roman Catholic bishops worldwide instructs them to bar men “with homosexual tendencies” from being rectors or teachers at seminaries.

The cover letter, dated Nov. 4, accompanied advance copies of the “instruction” on gays in the priesthood that was released publicly on Tuesday by Rome’s Congregation for Catholic Education. That congregation also is currently supervising inspections of all 229 U.S. seminaries and has directed visiting teams to look for “evidence of homosexuality” on campus.

The cover letter was first reported on by America’s Catholic News Service and will be published in Origins, its periodical that prints texts of church documents.

The letter tells bishops that the new Vatican document “does not call into question the validity of” previous ordinations of priests “with homosexual tendencies” or of priests for whom “such tendencies have manifested themselves after ordination,” although they are expected to maintain celibacy.

It then prohibits gays from leading or teaching at seminaries. “Because of the particular responsibility of those charged with the formation of future priests, they are not to be appointed as rectors or educators in seminaries,” the letter says.

‘Transitory’ gay tendencies
The Vatican instruction itself prohibits seminary enrollment and ordination for men who are actively gay, have “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” or “support so-called gay culture.” Those with only “transitory” homosexual tendencies must be celibate three years before ordination.

The letter also reports that the Vatican has been working on the issue of gays in the priesthood since 1996, long before a massive sex abuse crisis hit the American clergy.

The idea originated when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — asked the education congregation to prepare an instruction on homosexuals and priestly vocations.

The panel of cardinals that supervises the education congregation discussed drafts in 1998, 2002 and 2005. During the process, the emerging text was reviewed by Ratzinger’s doctrinal congregation and six other Vatican agencies. Benedict approved publication of the final text on Aug. 31.

The cover letter does not say what role the late Pope John Paul II had in the project.

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