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Homosexuality and Catholic Priests

by Vern Bullough


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


The widespread exposure of pedophilia within the Catholic clergy has led the church to focus on homosexuality within the clergy as a source of the problem. It has to be emphasized, however, that pedophilia and homosexuality are not the same thing. In fact, only a handful of priests technically are pedophiles (sexually involved with children under ten or eleven). More might be inclined to ephebophilia, an attraction to pubescent and post-pubescent youth. One reason for this higher percentage is the Catholic practice of encouraging very young boys to enter seminaries and cutting them off from normal adolescent development.

When it comes to homosexuality, however, a significant percentage of clergy, perhaps as high as 40 percent, might be labeled "homophile." This percentage may be even higher among seminary graduates since the 1960s and in the seminaries themselves. I use the term homophile rather than homosexual because, even though their fantasies and attractions might be for same-sex partners, they strive to remain celibate with much the same effort as their heterophilic counterparts do.

Undoubtedly the loving, caring, supportive idealized role of the priest and the male brotherhood of which this role is a part is—and has long been—highly attractive to many homophiles. The Catholic Church has long recognized this. Throughout its history there have been periods of greater and lesser toleration. In much of the medieval period, the concern about sexuality was not about the secular clergy (those who were the priests and bishops in the secular world), since until the end of the twelfth century they were allowed to marry and have families. Rather, the issue was with the regular clergy, that is, the monks, and also the nuns, who were not clergy. They follow a special rule that has always demanded abstinence from sexual activities.

St. Benedict (c. 480-580), the founder of organized monasticism in the West, was undoubtedly conscious of the homoerotic drive among would-be monks. He stipulated that two people should be prohibited from sleeping in one bed, that lamps in the dormitory should be kept burning throughout the night, and that monks sleep with clothes on. Homoeroticism was widespread in the monastic life, as indicated by the penitentials, homoerotic poems, and other writings. The problem with monastic life was (and is) that it is very demanding and austere; it is not to be wondered that many found it difficult to maintain over the years. Often the hidden issue was same-sex relationships, but the administrative structure of the church was much too fragmented to deal with this or many other problems. It was not until the development of canon law and the extension of the power of the papal hierarchy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that organized and centrally directed reform could take place.

There were regular denunciations of sodomists by some of the would-be reformers, the most damning by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072). And it was more or less standard practice throughout the Middle Ages to denounce suspect clergy and antipopes as sodomites. Church councils are full of references to homosexuality. The problem was compounded at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries when the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils established clerical celibacy as a rule, whereas it had only been an ideal for most of its history. Still the "sin against nature," as it came to be known, was an issue continually discussed in councils and widely ignored in practice.

The Catholic Church has always taught that people are human and that there will be many failures in achieving an impossible ideal, but the biggest failure of the church has been in not giving any real sex education or warning to those in its seminaries of the potential lifetime struggle to preserve a celibate life. Those heterophilic priests who fail to observe celibacy have as much difficulty as their homophilic counterparts, but they probably have a more sympathetic response from the hierarchy and their congregation when they stray.

The mass exodus of priests in the 1960s and 1970s who then married was not matched by an exodus of the homophilic oriented priests, thus increasing the percentage of homophiles in the church. The church has been so panic-stricken by this growing minority that when the late Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros tried to remove the Reverend Paul Shanley from his high-profile Boston street ministry because of Shanley's repeated acts of pedophilia, he hesitated. Shanley, who denied the charges against him, said the real problem in the church was not pedophilia but homosexuality and threatened to go to the media with allegations of homosexuality in the archdiocesan seminary. Shanley allegedly said that if he went to the press the cardinal would have to fire many of his top priests. It may be that Medeiros and other bishops so feared the exposure of widespread homophilia among the clergy that this inhibited them from dealing with the more serious problem: priests who had sexual relationships with children and adolescents. Indeed, bishops may have felt that pedophilia and ephebophilia constituted a minor public relations issue by comparison.

If there is anything to be learned from this crisis, it is that there are—and have always been—a number of homophilic priests within the Catholic Church. Their struggles to preserve celibacy are no less difficult than those of their heterophilic counterparts, and neither group is much more prone than the other to seek out sexual relations with minors. Because of the sex-segregated schooling and the easier availability of boys to priests, it was the adolescent boys rather than girls who were more often the victims.


Vern L. Bullough is a long-time researcher in human sexuality who has received many awards, including the Kinsey Award, for his research and publications. He is senior editor of Free Inquiry and a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. Currently he is adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and distinguished professor emeritus at the State University of New York.


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