July 21, 2002

Several things struck Andrew Krzmarzick during orientation week for his class of aspiring priests in the late summer of 1997: how brainy everyone seemed, how they weren't ostentatiously pious, and one other thing. Midway through a tour of the library at Theological College in Northeast Washington, he noticed another student "definitely checking me out." So he ditched the tour and asked the one friend he'd made so far: "Hey--are we the only straight guys here or what?"

For David Kucharski, that same realization came as a pleasant surprise. Walking back from a movie after his first week of classes, he asked some fellow students how they thought gay people were treated in their parishes. At least a couple seemed sympathetic. "I knew I would need a friend for later," he said.

They were two young seminarians from the diocese of Dubuque, Iowa--one straight and one gay. They arrived in Washington one year apart, and both would have been Roman Catholic priests by now, classes of 2001 and 2002, respectively, at the elite national seminary affiliated with Catholic University. But both left when what they noticed those early weeks came to dominate their seminary experience in a way they found unnerving--something "known by everyone but never really acknowledged," said Kucharski.

It was not the presence of gay men that bothered either of them--both wound up working at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, doing outreach to people with AIDS, many of them gay. It was the skittishness surrounding the whole issue of homosexuality at the seminary. Gay or not seemed to define social cliques, political camps and many a classmate's wrenching personal struggles. Yet being gay was never mentioned by the faculty except as an abstract possibility.

"It's not like guys were walking around holding hands," Krzmarzick said, "but there was just this huge undercurrent that was not addressed."

In some ways that silence is hardly surprising. Until now, the church's position on ordaining gay priests has remained ambiguous. Pope John Paul II's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, recently said of gays: "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained." But it was an offhand response to a question, and generated much controversy because in fact church policy does not forbid ordaining gay men.

For some conservative Catholics, however, the priest sex abuse scandal has made the issue unavoidable. Much of their anger is directed at the seminaries, gatekeepers of the priesthood. In "Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church," published this year, Michael S. Rose described the schools as havens for "homosexual dilettantes" who alienate heterosexual candidates, ridicule the orthodox ones and make a mockery of the church's moral teachings.

Catholic liberals attribute the sex abuse scandal to the requirement of celibacy or the absence of female priests. To them, the focus on gay priests is just a witch hunt, and many would prefer not to open the subject at all.

Somewhere between them is Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector. In "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," Cozzens wrote that the presence of a "gay subculture" is self-evident, as are the costs of ignoring it. The answer is simply to open up the debate, he wrote: Is the priesthood "becoming a gay profession. . . . Does it matter?"

The last time the Vatican dealt with the issue was in the 1980s, when it sent a committee of bishops to investigate whether the 200 American seminaries were complying with the church's moral teachings. At the time, many of the schools had a reputation for being lax in enforcing their traditional ban on sex. Next year, as part of its response to the sexual abuse scandal, Rome plans to dispatch another Apostolic Visitation focusing on questions of celibacy.

It is generally agreed that sexual activity at the seminaries is less flagrant now, so this time the questions are more murky than they were in the '80s. The debate centers on the mere presence of a significant number of gay students. TC, as Theological College is known, was one of the seminaries investigated in the '80s, when the "gay subculture was a fairly significant element" and the faculty was not strict, said the Rev. Bill Parent, outgoing vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington and a TC student at the time.

Many of the two dozen present and former TC students who were interviewed for this article described participating in, or witnessing, some sexual activity, sometimes in the dorms and sometimes off campus. But mostly what they described was the "weirdness," as several called it, meaning the gay undercurrent that Krzmarzick described--ubiquitous yet unacknowledged.

The Rev. Lee Purcell, president of Krzmarzick's class in 1997 and now a priest in Indiana, said about 20 seminarians in a class of 80 told him they were gay--some who "were almost flaunting it," some who had never admitted it to anyone else.

He guessed about the same number were clearly heterosexual and the rest were "struggling."