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Ecclesiastical gaydar: should churches be allowed to discriminate priests?

Melbourne's Catholic Churches have decided to test potential priests for sexual orientation, banning those that appear to be gay. This is in accordance with the Vatican recommendation that even celibate gays should not be allowed in the priesthood. Needless to say, both people within and outside the church have reacted negatively to it. But to what extent can a church declare who is fit to hold positions in it? And would the testing be fair?

Discrimination, to treat people based on membership of a particular category rather than individual merit, is usually regarded as bad. It is often associated with prejudice or goes against the idea that in a liberal democratic society everybody should be regarded as a priori equal. Not hiring someone because of their race, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation is prohibited in most western countries.

The curious thing is that we accept that many churches discriminate. The catholic church not only discriminates against gays but also against women as priests. While most people of a liberal bent think this is immoral and may work to get the church to change its opinion (as has happened in other churches), few appear to hold that what the church is doing is unlawful and should be treated as the same as a company refusing to hire black people. Governments do not step in and force churches to accept discriminated categories as priests, yet they do that in the economic sphere.

Why this special status for churches? A plausible answer is that since freedom of religion is regarded as an important human right, infringing it requires a very strong societal interest.

Nobody (to my knowledge) argues that churches discriminate when they only appoint priests belonging to their religion – the religion of the priest is a relevant factor in their job. It is not discrimination to turn away someone because of a relevant trait. Not hiring an uneducated person for a demanding job is not discrimination, and the fact that no people in the set of uneducated people are eligible for the job is still not discrimination.

The problem is of course to show that being female or gay is a relevant trait for being a good priest. There are various theological debates about this matter in different religions. Most of these debates hinge on assumptions which are peculiar to the different religions and do not make much sense to outsiders. But since we respect people's right to hold strange religous views and to organise according to them, we must accept they they might find arbitrary traits to be relevant in appointing people.

Companies are founded to make money. Hence they cannot claim to the same degree that freedom of belief allows them to discriminate: most personal categories have no importance for the role of an employee or customer. This line of thought also suggests that organisations such as political or academic organisations might argue that they can discriminate against applicants holding certain views on the grounds of the protection of their own freedom of thought: holding "wrong" views might actually be a relevant personal trait. Flat-earthers and creationists are not discriminated against by universities when they do not get good grades or tenure, since their views (and in particular their correctness) can be relevant to their academic work.

Although this discussion seems to suggest that the church should be free to discriminate gays from priesthood, there is another reason to suspect that the testing is wrong: it might simply be unfair and inaccurate.

It is interesting to consider how this testing is actually
supposed to happen, and how intrusive or it would be.
Presumably the church is unlikely to show pornography and measure
sexual response with a pletysmograph, since it would be sinful (and the
validity of such measures is debated). It is easy to lie on surveys or
when asked questions. While people can guess sexual orientation based on face images at above chance levels very rapidly (PDF), the accuracy is just 10-20% above chance. Other psychological studies have found that sexual orientation can be detected at above chance levels, but at best it reaches 30% better than chance (and that in situations where self-identified gay or non-gay people occur at equal rates). Women and gay people are also slightly more accurate in their judgements. Hence it is debatable whether church authority
"gaydar" would be reliable or unbiased: there is a significant chance of misjudging the orientation of the applicant, and other prejudicing factors about the applicant could easily be hidden in a judgement about the orientation. In short, it is likely that the
testing would not be fair or accurate.

There is no moral reason not to allow a church to use unfair or inaccurate methods to select applicants if it so desires. But it is unlikely this is what the Vatican was aiming for.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. It strikes me as absurd to impose any concept of fairness on a religious organization. If, for example, the managing authority of the Catholic religion wants to limit the priesthood to unmarried males, there is no authoritative body of principles that can be used to contradict the decision. If the decision is explained, then the deciders submit their decision to judgment by persons outside the decision-making group, to whom the justification is addreseed. To me, that is foolish. A religious organization has its own reasons for doing what to us outsiders seem wrong. Too bad.

  2. Fairness standards can still be imposed from within. I’m not that well versed in Catholic ethics, but I am fairly certain that tests that are not reliable and easily biased by irrelevant factors would not be regarded as fair even from within the Church.

    One can do the standard statistical analysis: Assuming the testers are 90% correct in their judgements of sexual orientation, and 10% of the applicants are gay. Then in a hundred applicants 9 of the 10 gays will be detected and one will slip past. But there will also be 9 false positives among the 90 non-gay applicants. So even an unusually effective gaydar will lead to losing a significant number of qualified candidates.

    Maybe the church could get out of it by either arguing that the “threat” is so big that any test is better than no test (losing 19% of applicants, half of them unfairly, is worth it), or (less likely) assuming divine intervention would make the fallible tests much less fallible.

  3. I’m not sure that the fundamental question is as black and white, particularly in cases where the church is either established (as in the C of E) or extremely powerful (as in the RCC). We should also take account of the extent to which expressing certain theological viewpoints may constitute incitement to discrimination, while recognising of course that this is a lesser concern than incitement to terrorism or racial hatred.

    Another question, picking up on comments by Seth Edenbaum on “Should believers trust atheists?”: to what extent should we be aiming to address these issues purely on the basis of general principles, and to what extent is it legitimate/important to take account of context? The “context” I have in mind in this case is basically public opinion and political consequences. Is it even useful to consider this type of question on the basis of general principles, or should we rather let the democratic process decide and focus our attention on bigger issues?

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