The Catholic Priesthood's Crisis of Soul

Gay men are often nurturing and sensitive--qualities especially suited to ministry. But should the Catholic church ordain them?

BY: Donald Cozzens


Excepted with permission from the book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest's Crisis of Soul" by Donald B. Cozzens.

I confess to a certain anxiety as I begin this reflection on homosexuality and the priesthood. Whatever is said about such a sensitive and complex issue is open to misunderstanding and seeming insensitivity. Some will deny the reality that many observers see as changing the face of the priesthood--that the percentage of homosexual priests and seminarians is significantly higher than it is in society at large. Others will see any attention given to the phenomenon as a symptom of the homophobia that is characteristic of individuals with less than open minds. Still others will wonder what difference sexual orientation makes in the celibate lives of priests. Regardless of the risks, the issue, I believe, deserves attention.

For more than a decade, now, voices have been heard expressing concern about the growing numbers of gay priests and seminarians. Vicars of priests and seminary administrators who have been around awhile speak among themselves of the disproportionate number of gay men that populate our seminaries and presbyterates. They know that a proportionate number of gay priests and seminarians would fall between 5 and 10 percent. The extent of the estimated disproportion, naturally enough, will vary depending on general perceptions, personal experiences, and the frequency of first-hand encounters with self-acknowledged gay priests.

The general perceptions, in turn, are often shaped by various studies and surveys which attempt to measure the percentage of priests who are gay. An NBC report on celibacy and the clergy found that "anywhere from 23 percent to 58 percent" of the Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation. Other studies find that approximately half of American priests and seminarians are homosexually oriented. Sociologist James G. Wolf in his book Gay Priests concluded that 48.5 percent of priests and 55.1 percent of seminarians were gay. The percentage appears to be highest among priests under forty years of age. Moreover, the percentage of gay men among religious congregations of priests is believed to be even higher. Beyond these estimates, of course, are priests who remain confused about their orientation and men who have so successfully denied their orientation, that in spite of predominantly same-sex erotic fantasies, they insist that they are heterosexual.

The Significance

So what, it may be asked, if the Catholic Church is developing a heavily homosexual priesthood? Few would deny that throughout the Church's history many priests, bishops, popes, and saints were homosexual in orientation. Aware that holiness of life and goodness of heart transcend orientation, that charisms for ministry and preaching are bestowed on God's people as God freely disposes, seminary admission committees tend to focus on the applicant's overall suitability for priestly service.

As a matter of practice, if not policy, many dioceses and religious congregations are open to ordaining gay men if they demonstrate a commitment to celibate living. They tend to be men who are nurturing, intelligent, talented, and sensitive-qualities especially suited to ministry. Often they excel as liturgists and homilists. Without question, gay priests minister creatively and effectively at every level of pastoral leadership. The vast majority keep their orientation to themselves.

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