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Introduction Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4


10 January 2006

Richard Sipe

When Rome speaks it intends that issues should be closed—finished. Thus there is an ancient saying: Roma locuta. Causa finita est. (Rome has spoken. The cause is finished.)

Rome has now spoken about sexual orientation and suitability for the ministry. Rather than ending any discussion about homosexual (or heterosexual) orientation and the ability of men to maintain celibacy as suitable candidates for the priesthood by indicating that gay orientation disqualifies a man for ordination, Rome has taken the lid off the proverbial Pandora’s box.

The Instruction issued by the Pontifical Commission on Education hedges its bets by confining the interrogations to candidates for training and listing qualifiers like transitional homosexuality, support of gay lifestyles, deep-seated homosexuality, and the ability to practice celibacy for three years prior to ordination as positive or negative indicators and guidelines for accepting men into seminaries and religious orders. The ambiguous stipulations of the document preserve some semblance of cover and rationale for gay priests and bishops already in the ministry.

But those stipulations and confinement of the directive to candidates for seminaries or religious life will not end discussion, speculation, and opinions (nor should it) about the sexual orientation and the practice of celibacy of men already ordained and, most certainly must not exclude from investigation bishops and cardinals each of whom has a sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation is not discovered at the same time that one discovers gender identity, which is at first a discovery of a difference between boys and girls and later as awareness that one is a boy or a girl. 

Sexual orientation is a personal awareness of one’s preference for a sexual partner of the opposite or same sex. A person discovers his or her orientation over time through fantasies, feelings, dreams, attractions, impulses, experience, and experimentation. Only persons—him or herself—can know for certain their sexual orientation and their preference for the gender of a sex partner. The instruction gives proof of this by counseling candidates to be forthcoming and honest about their orientation (self-awareness) when they apply for entrance to a seminary.

Orientation can be firmly set during adolescence, but not always consolidated into a solid sense of identity even until much later in life. Orientation can remain ambiguous for long periods of one’s life. Psychologist and former priest Eugene C. Kennedy has written about the asexuality of churchmen whose sexuality seems to be submerged under and superceded by their experience and position of power.

Other elements in addition to clerical culture, for instance psychic development, stress, loneliness, a sense of a need to compromise one’s intended ideal with one’s sexual drive in order to survive—(doubling), or availability of a sexual partner can modify (or disturb) one’s sense of preference. Orientation is variable most of all because “man is a loving animal, and he will love what is close to him.”

Many men in the armed forces during the past 65 years under the stress of battle, isolation from families, deprivation, and overwhelming life-threatening fear and loss, can relate how thin and permeable the membrane separating heterosexual and homosexual orientation can be. Their feelings of friendship nowhere before experienced make them aware of a capacity for love and closeness with men they did not imagine.

Prisoners (of war or not), men in specialized work circumstances, and Catholic priests and bishops among others can duplicate the same realization when faced with emotional or sexual isolation and deprivation.

At times this friendship and love are expressed by actions—direct mutual sexual gratification.

The capacity of heterosexual men to enjoy sex with a man and the same capacity of homosexual men to have straight sex is too well known to belabor here. But open discussion and scientific study about sexual orientation needs to be increased for the good of society, for the elimination of prejudice, and the development of rational moral standards. Consideration of the subject among Catholic clergy is right and just.

Over 45 years of studying celibacy and sex in the American priesthood has convinced me of several things:


There is and always have been a larger proportion of homosexually oriented men among the clergy than in the general population—22 percent at least. (Many knowledgeable priests claim that the rate is closer to 50 percent.)


Homosexually oriented clergy today maintain their celibacy in at least a rate similar to heterosexually oriented priests.


Among the ranks of the gay clergy are saints, martyrs, Doctors of the church, popes, and bishops—past and present.


The church has too long left the sexual education of the clergy to lay people who instruct priests about sex in the confessional and the counseling office—or by ignoring illicit sexual exploits or liaisons.


 The church demands the promise of celibacy as a condition of ordination, but it still fails to train men for it. Any adequate basic training for religious celibacy would take an equal amount of time and effort as is now expended on training in the fundamentals of scripture—a three-year, six- semester sequence that would cover the essentials of celibacy and sex from its ascetic, historical, moral, physical, psychological, and practical aspects.


The church does not adequately balance its homosocial culture and thus encourages a preservation of an immature psychosexual development in many priests.


The homosocial clerical culture thus develops in some men homosexual tendencies and even behaviors that under different circumstances would not be likely.


The church has entrusted the selection and training of its candidates for the priesthood and religious life to men, some of whom are sexually active either with other men or women, and regrettably, at times, with the men they are committed to train.


The Vatican and chancery offices have many clerics who are sexually active.


The current evaluation of seminaries in America is based on the premises that the elimination of gay candidates and the insistence on doctrinal purity and conformity will save the ministry from scandal and abuse.


Neither will. The problems of the priesthood are far deeper than gays and doctrinal orthodoxy.

Dropping the requirement of celibacy for the priesthood may come, but it will do far less for the church than if bishops and priests who promise celibacy practice it.

More fundamentally, the church is at Copernican moment. It must rethink its understanding of human sexuality. The challenge cannot be answered alone by the bible or tradition. We are in an epic moment when science and experience must prevail in defense of reason and religion. The credibility and integrity of the clergy is but one aspect of the sexual crisis of our time.

The clergy alone, however, cannot solve our present larger-than-life crisis. The intellectual and spiritual resources of the laity—single, married, heterosexual, and homosexual as equal partners—with their knowledge, experience, and efforts are necessary to meet the daunting task before us all—making sense out of sexuality.

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