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Clergymen: Subculture and Conflict

March 29, 1987|Jason Berry | Jason Berry is the author of, among other books, "Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi." He received a 1986 Catholic Press Assn. award for articles on controversies within the church.

NEW ORLEANS — In matters of politics, the Catholic Church is perhaps the most potent instrument for freedom in the world today. In Poland the church stands with Solidarity as a bulwark against communism; in the Philippines it helped topple a decadent tyrant. In Latin America, Christian base communities breathe the gospel through lives of the landless and the politically oppressed.

In matters of sexuality, however, while the church leadership presents a stern, unswerving moral posture from the Vatican, its members and many of its own clergy do not practice that stance. Issues concerning sexuality tear at the central nervous system of a world institution.

For the second time in two decades, the Roman Catholic Church has issued a sweeping pronouncement on human sexuality. In 1968 the subject was birth-control devices. In 1987, the Vatican has addressed complex questions of human reproduction. In the intervening years, a no less troubling development has affected clerical life within the church, a dilemma which the Vatican has yet to address publicly. The problem is profound and the issue is a reported homosexual subculture within the male clergy; while the numbers are in dispute, some church observers estimate that about 20% of U.S. Catholic clergymen are homosexual. And while other organized religions may have similar subcultures within their ranks, nowhere else is the contradiction between public policy and personal practice so controversial.

In 1976, after the American Psychiatric Assn. removed homosexuality from its list of diagnostic illnesses, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter, "To Live in Christ Jesus," which stated that a homosexual orientation was not sinful, but that physical practice of that orientation was immoral, thereby reimposing the celibate life. Still, the bishops wrote, homosexuals "should not suffer from prejudice . . . . They have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community."

By the early 1980s, an organization of homosexual Catholics called Dignity gathered for Masses in some urban dioceses and pressed church leaders to endorse the morality of their sexual behavior. On Oct. 30, 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger redefined the Vatican's position in a letter to all bishops. He characterized homosexual relationships as tending toward "an extrinsic moral evil"--undercutting the U.S. bishops' stated position. Since then, various Dignity chapters have been told they cannot attend Mass as a group. Ratzinger's letter, however, dealt with the issue externally, without reference to the priesthood itself.

Ironically, Vatican policies may have indirectly contributed to the problem. After Vatican II reforms, Pope Paul VI issued a 1967 encyclical on clerical celibacy that disappointed many members of the American clergy. The Pope referred to celibacy as the church's "brilliant jewel," despite opinion polls showing that a majority of U.S. priests were in favor of the option to marry. Celibacy, many of them argued, is an ecclesiastical tradition without grounding in the words of Christ. During the Middle Ages it became a requirement, stemming partly from an idealization of the priestly life and partly from a fear that clerics' families would inherit church property. Today, property is no longer at issue.

The encyclical prompted departures rather than renewed dedication. Thousands of priests and nuns began leaving clerical life in the late '60s. Today the median age of priests is 54, while the number of seminarians has plummeted from 45,000 to 10,400 in just 20 years.

The result has been an increasingly divided church. Many Catholics who leave clerical life (or refuse to enter in the first place) do so to marry. An attrition of heterosexual clergy caused a relative rise in the percentage of homosexuals. And by the early '70s, seminary programs were changing, attempting to provide men with a better appreciation of human sexuality through new curricula. Sensitivity increased; so, apparently, did the number of homosexual seminarians.

In nine months of research for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly, I interviewed educators and theologians as well as 18 homosexual Catholic clergymen and two recently departed from clerical life. A young Baltimore priest claimed that a majority of his graduating class was homosexual: "I knew of 20% definitely." His statement echoes interviewees in Louisiana, Washington and Detroit.

Baltimore therapist A.W. Richard Sipe has counseled hundreds of priests. He offers the "conservative estimate" that 18% to 20% of the male clergy is homosexual. Father John Yockey, who teaches at Washington Theological Union, would double that estimate, although cautioning, "That does not mean they are necessarily genitally active."

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