In the Media
Sex, lies and Priesthood

Posted on Sun, Oct. 02, 2005 - San Jose Mercury News

The white smoke that billows from the Sistine Chapel when a new pope is chosen is at once a sign of change and of constancy. It is a tradition that links a new Roman Catholic pope to all those before him, and to the challenges they faced. In a church that evolves slowly, those challenges often remain the same for decades, if not centuries.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the latest pope -- whose cloud of smoke rose in April -- is facing an issue that is as old as the church he leads: sex.

Recent reports that the Vatican is likely to ban gays from becoming priests is partly about the church's feelings on homosexuality. But it is also about the Vatican's general queasiness on the subject of sexuality and its frustration at the inability to get American Catholics to follow its teachings on the subject.

Put simply, many Catholics -- often a majority of them -- don't believe what the church teaches about sex. The church's list of grave sins includes contraception, masturbation, premarital sex, sex after divorce and reproductive techniques that result in surplus embryos. But many Catholics make up their own minds on those subjects.

Even the question of abortion, ruled as an intrinsic evil without exception in strict orthodox Catholic moral teaching, is acceptable to two-thirds of American Catholics under certain circumstances.

And although the church has made it clear that it considers the possibility of a married priesthood and the ordination of women settled topics -- the answers are no and no -- the issues are still hotly debated in certain Catholic circles.

Unable to bring its flock into line, the Vatican has apparently decided to try to change the one area of sexuality it thinks it can influence: homosexuality in its American seminaries.

Although the ruling in question has not yet been published, word has been leaking out for weeks in the Catholic and mainstream press that the Vatican will soon ban gay candidates to seminaries. (Unidentified Vatican sources in those stories say the church document -- which has been in the works since John Paul II's papacy -- would not affect already-ordained gay priests or bishops.)

Already, the church has started a related investigation in which teams of bishops will inspect all 229 American Catholic seminaries training men for the priesthood.

Most of the focus of those inspections will be to determine whether the seminary is teaching exactly what the Vatican considers official truth on many subjects. But the document setting out the rules of the investigations also lists as a mandatory question: "Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary?''

So even if the Vatican doesn't publish a rule that seminaries must turn away gay candidates, the inspections are sure to convey the sense that it disapproves of allowing them in.

Complicated ties

The church's relationship with homosexuals has been complicated for centuries. The church has said that although having a homosexual orientation is not a sin, all homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered'' and sinful. In other words, gays can still be good Catholics so long as they are chaste.

And everyone -- let me repeat, everyone -- in the administration of the church knows that gays make up a larger percentage of the priesthood than they do the general population. Responsible researchers from around the world cite a large proportion of gays among priests, bishops and cardinals. You can count on 30 percent -- one of the lowest estimates.

That doesn't mean that all church higher-ups were happy about that knowledge, but they never actually banned gay priests.

In 1961, the Vatican did issue a document that clearly stated that those who had "perverse inclinations to homosexuality'' should not be ordained. Still, many in the church preached understanding. And the truth is that many American seminaries did not follow the 1961 ruling, nor were they forced to.

Now, with the number of heterosexual men seeking to join the priesthood declining and others leaving every year, many seminary rectors -- some famous ones -- and even some bishops contend that 50 percent to 70 percent of new applicants are gay.

What that means is that if the church were to ban gay seminarians, it could well lose even more priests. Some argue that heterosexuals would be drawn back into the priesthood if the "gay subculture" that is said to prevail at seminaries were eliminated, but no one knows whether that's true, and it is highly unlikely.

It's entirely possible those red-blooded straight guys are avoiding the priesthood because they don't want to be celibate; in an era when priests' status has declined, it's no longer worth such a sacrifice.

So why would the church even consider taking a step that could turn the priest shortage into a more acute crisis than it already is?

I believe the reason is that some church leaders have assumed that the large number of priest sex-abuse cases reported in recent years can be blamed mainly on gay priests, even though there is not a shred of scientific proof to back that up.

Other explanations

Part of the fuel for that mistaken belief is a recent study of the sex-abuse crisis in the U.S. church. The study, ordered up by the church and conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concluded that at least 4 percent of priests were alleged to have abused minors in the 52 years ending in 2002. (That translated to almost 4,400 priests.)

John Jay also concluded that 81 percent of the alleged victims were boys. Some people assumed, as a result, that sexual abuse is a homosexual problem.

Not so. First of all, there have been no studies in the general population that have even suggested gays are any more likely than heterosexuals to be pedophiles.

Plus, there are other, more likely explanations for why the majority of abused children were boys.

Studies of the priesthood have indicated that 66 percent of priests are psychosexually underdeveloped or maldeveloped. Part of the reason is that clerical culture encourages the idealization of adolescents (for their purity and passion), as well as encouraging dependency and conformity in its priests.

When adults -- gay or heterosexual -- function on a level that is equal to most adolescents, it's not surprising that the people they're sexually attracted to are adolescents. And in general, the adolescents whom priests spent time with were boys -- mainly altar boys. No one was suspicious when priests spent time with those boys -- even after Mass -- because part of the priests' duty was to mentor boys they thought would make good priests.

Training needed

In the end, the root of the sex-abuse problem may well be the church's demand for celibacy without adequately training for it and responsibly supporting it. That's not to say that many men cannot choose to remain celibate and be happy with that life. But for those who joined the priesthood failing to make such a decision, or because they were confused about their sexuality, celibacy can become too difficult to sustain.

In my own ethnographic study of 1,500 priests from 1960 to 1985, I found that only 50 percent, at any one time, were practicing chastity. Gays do just as well -- or poorly, take your pick -- as heterosexuals in observance.

The structure, if not the intent, of the Vatican's seminary investigation -- combined with the possible ruling against gay seminarians -- is a smoke screen to cover up the fact that too many priests and bishops, gay and straight, are not practicing the chastity they promised and did not protect the children in their care.

So if you really want to be a Catholic priest, when you go to a seminary and they ask you what your orientation is, tell them it doesn't make any difference. You want to be an honest and trustworthy celibate, dedicated to the work exemplified by men like Francis, Ignatius, Pope John XXIII, and even John Paul II, who initiated the idea of a ban on gay priests.

That will cut through a lot of the smoke. A.W. RICHARD SIPE, a psychotherapist who has counseled many priests over 45 years, is co-author of "Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Abuse,'' published this year. Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, wrote this article for Perspective.


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