Half of Catholic Clergy Sees a Gay Presence in Priesthood

By Darlene Gavron Stevens
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 17, 2002

Attempting to bring hard data to a persistent rumor in the Catholic Church, researchers said Friday in Chicago that more than half of U.S. priests say they perceive a gay subculture in their diocese or religious institute, with 19 percent saying it clearly exists.

The long-standing debate over homosexuality and the priesthood heated up this year as a result of the church's sexual abuse scandal. Bishop Wilton Gregory, leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, complained of the church's "ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men," and a papal spokesman said people with "these inclinations just cannot be ordained."

The comments angered many who said church leaders were trying to pin the scandal on homosexuality and deflect blame from leaders who allowed known abusers to continue as priests. They stressed that researchers have found no link between homosexual orientation and sexual abuse.

But controversy over gay priests predates the current crisis, and some critics have argued that a gay subculture has a negative impact on seminaries, possibly even deterring some men from joining the priesthood.

The survey, conducted last year, found that 55 percent of priests say such a subculture "clearly" or "probably" exists in their diocese or religious institute. Forty-one percent of priests said a homosexual subculture clearly or probably existed in the seminaries they attended.

The younger the priest, the more likely he was to identify a clear gay subculture in the seminary. Forty-five percent of priests age 25 to 35 said a subculture clearly existed in seminary, compared with only 8 percent of priests over age 56, and 3 percent of those over 66.

"Our conclusion, based on these data and on our focus groups, is that homosexual subcultures increased in visibility, and probably also in numbers, in recent decades," said Jacqueline Wenger, a doctoral student and research assistant who co-authored the study with Catholic University of America colleague Dean Hoge.

The study, presented in Chicago at the 64th annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, was based on a 2001 mail survey to which 1,279 diocesan and religious order priests, both active and retired, responded. The response rate was about 70 percent. Wenger and Hoge followed up with 75 personal interviews.

The study described a subculture as a group of people with "preferential friendships, social gatherings and vocabulary." It did not question priests about their own sexual orientation.

In her presentation, Wenger pointed out that the survey was commissioned two years ago by the National Federation of Priests' Councils, well before the abuse scandal took off.

Wenger and Hoge decided to include questions about homosexuality in the survey after Rev. Donald Cozzens raised the issue in his 2000 book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." Cozzens reported on a number of studies that suggest gay men make up 30 to 50 percent of the priesthood and said gay subcultures should be discouraged at seminaries.

In one focus group, according to Wenger, three priests said they were taken aback, or even angered, by gay cliques at seminary.

"There was a very strong subculture, one that actually shocked me," said a priest who entered the seminary in 1982. "It created a certain kind of atmosphere and a certain kind of irreverence; that for me was a problem."

A 37-year-old diocesan priest called the subculture "a corrosive element to the nth degree." The subculture "ran the seminary practically," he said, adding that it was "thoroughly tolerated by the faculty, in fact in some instances supported by it and promoted."

Rev. Patrick Lagges, vicar of canonical services for the archdiocese of Chicago and a part-time teacher at Mundelein Seminary for five years, said that although he has not perceived a gay subculture at the seminary, he welcomes research on the topic.

"I think it's something we have to take seriously," said Lagges, a priest for 25 years. "The next question is: Am I missing something? It's something to reflect on."

Lagges said the shrinking number of students at seminaries might help explain why younger priests are more aware of sexual orientation.

"The more important question is, what are the seminaries doing to teach the seminarians about their own sexuality and how it fits into a celibate lifestyle?" he said. "Today the seminary is doing a much better job of dealing with the issue of celibacy and sexuality."

The Vatican has called for more oversight of seminaries, and gay activists have said they fear a witch hunt against gay priests. They argue that a priest's sexual orientation is irrelevant to his ministry.

Many of the priests surveyed by Hoge and Wenger agreed that if celibacy were honored, sexual orientation should not be a factor in seminary or diocesan life.

"I don't think the issue of homosexuality by itself was a problem," said one interviewee. "I think the issue was how the authorities dealt with it. ... Clearly there were heterosexuals there who were also taking the celibacy issue, and all of that, just as lightly, and had little things on the side as well. It wasn't just homosexuals."

On the topic of celibacy and the priesthood, Hoge and Wenger found that laity are more accepting of optional celibacy than are priests. Although a 1999 Gallup survey showed 71 percent of U.S. Catholics favored optional celibacy, priests are closely divided on the question. Wenger and Hoge found 56 percent of priests agree that celibacy should be a "matter of personal choice."

When the responses are broken down by age, younger priests are far more traditional, with only 33 percent of priests age 25 to 35 supporting optional celibacy. That has changed since 1970, when most of the younger priests said celibacy should be a matter of personal choice.

In the current study, the youngest priests were also much less likely to support reinstating priests who left to get married. Only 23 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds approved of the idea, compared with 50 percent of those older than 66.

If celibacy became optional, only 12 percent of all priests surveyed said they would choose to get married.