There has been plenty of media attention of late given to comments made by Pope Francis regarding the ordination of gay men to the priesthood. Yet, so far as I can tell, there has been little cause for fuss. But what exactly is the Church's teaching on the ordination of men who experience same sex attraction?
An analogy may help clarify the situation. (Like all analogies, of course, it breaks down at points, but I hope you'll find it useful.) Does the Church ordain alcoholics to the priesthood? The answer is, well... sort of.
If an alcoholic has confronted his problem, learned to resist his temptations, and has been sober for several years, yes, most bishops would be comfortable ordaining him. What if he were just entering Alcoholics Anonymous and the long road to recovery? A bishop would likely ask him to persevere in this important work for some time before coming to the diocese for the discernment of a priestly vocation. What if our alcoholic suffered frequent lapses into drunkenness, but hated his sin, wanted to be free of it, and wanted to serve the Lord? A bishop would likely encourage his sense of contrition, encourage him to seek help, and persist in prayer. But to ordain, or even suggest the possibility of ordination, to such a man would be imprudent. Finally, what if a man who routinely got drunk, encouraged others to do likewise, and contended that drunkenness was not a sin (contrary to the teaching of the Church) desired ordination? Clearly, no bishop would consider him for ordination.
The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts sinful. Whether one agrees with this position or not, it is clear and easy to understand. However, the Church makes a distinction between sin (which is a moral error) and the inclination to sin (which should be discouraged, but is not itself an error on the individual's part). Thus, the mere experience of same sex attraction is not sinful and those who struggle with such a temptation are not ipso facto barred from ministry in the Church. But prudence does require that bishops and those responsible for priestly formation carefully consider whether a man seeking ordination has overcome his temptation or whether it is likely to be a serious struggle for him, one which might be a cause for scandal or impair his ministry. Precisely delineating such a distinction in the form of administrative policy is apt to be tricky, but I think the general concept is fairly clear.
The one category of men experiencing same sex attraction who are unambiguously barred from ordination are those who claim that homosexual acts are not sinful or behave in a manner which indicates the same. They are prohibited from being ministers of the Catholic Church because they do not believe the Church's own teachings. Again, whether one agrees with the Church or not, this position on ordination is commonsensical.
As Pope Francis noted, the Church's teaching on the ordination of women is straightforward: "The Church has spoken and says no." The Church's teaching on the ordination of men who have experienced same sex attraction is more complicated and therefore it is unsurprising that when several people (e.g. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis) explain this position, the explanation is made in a slightly different way. Does that mean that the Church's position has changed? Doubtful.
Finally, a word on Francis' actual comment: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" This reminds me of Augustine's well known line: "Love and then do as you will." People sometimes interpret Augustine's comment as libertine, permitting all manner of behaviors so long as they are done with a loving intention. In fact, love is a very specific notion for Augustine; while there may be a great many ways to express love (as Augustine emphasizes), many behaviors are intrinsically at odds with love, and thus would be utterly rejected by one who is moved by love. Only someone completely unfamiliar with Augustine would make the mistake of assuming that he saw no place for rules or limits.
In a similar fashion, let me break down Pope Francis' comment for those who might lack a broader understanding of the Catholic Church. "If someone is gay..." Francis certainly refers here to one who experiences same sex attraction, not someone who commits homosexual acts. The Church, following St. Paul's lead, does pass judgment on particular acts. "If... he searches for the Lord and has good will..." Such seeking is not a casual matter but the total giving over of one's life to the Almighty and His ways. The proof of such good will in the life of someone experiencing same sex attraction would be the practice of celibacy. Thus, we might paraphrase Francis' comment as follows: "If someone experiences temptation, but gives his life over to God and resists that temptation, I would not withhold ordination simply because he had been tempted." That's not really such news, now is it?
PS I must make brief mention of the FT's coverage of this story. While it reported the buzz among Vatican watchers, it also highlighted the continuity: "In line with Church teaching, Francis said gays should not be judged or marginalised but integrated into society, while maintaining that homosexual acts are a sin."