Gays and the Seminary: The Schools That Train U.S. Priests Require Students to Be Chaste, but Most Allow Them to Be Gay. A Vatican Probe May Change All That

By France, David | Newsweek, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Gays and the Seminary: The Schools That Train U.S. Priests Require Students to Be Chaste, but Most Allow Them to Be Gay. A Vatican Probe May Change All That


France, David, Newsweek


Byline: David France

There will never be a gay students' group--or gay film series or gay dance--at St. John's Seminary, one of the most respected training grounds for Catholic priests in the nation. Yet the 64-year-old institution, nestled in the hills of Camarillo, Calif., may be one of the country's gayest facilities for higher education. Depending on whom you ask, gay and bisexual men make up anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent of the student body at the college and graduate levels. "I don't want people to think that in a negative way," says a 28-year-old gay alumnus, who believes all seminarians there are chaste, regardless of orientation. "It isn't like Christopher Street or West Hollywood. But some seminarians are gay, openly gay, and very loud about it."

Though they constitute just over 5 percent of the population, gay men may make up half the student body at the 76 high-school, college and graduate-level seminaries across the country, according to broad estimates. For decades Roman Catholic Church leaders have quietly reckoned with this surprising truth about seminary life. There is no rule against celibate gays as seminarians, theologians say. But for a church where priests preach that homosexuality is an "intrinsic evil," it is at the least incongruous that so many would-be priests are gay.

American church leaders are now wrestling with these demographic realities, in part because some of them are blaming gays for the growing crisis. Last week, while Cardinal Bernard Law was ordered to say what he knew about abusive Boston priests and the Rev. Paul Shanley and another cleric were arrested and charged with raping young boys, dioceses across the country were preparing for a lengthy evaluation, or "apostolic visitation," of U.S. seminary cultures and admissions policies to see if more gays should be screened out. The Vatican had agreed to conduct this study, which will begin immediately, at last month's summit with American cardinals.

Rome's sentiments on this subject are well known. Though the pope has not addressed the issue of gay seminarians publicly, last year the Most Rev. Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Vatican's Doctrinal Congregation, declared, "Persons with a homosexual inclination should not be admitted to the seminary." A small number of American church leaders are now echoing that thought. They consider the widening scandal to be a "homosexual-type problem," as Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida has said, despite the near plurality among psychologists, sociologists and theologians--even abuse victims --who say that is not case. "It's not a homosexual issue," says the Rev. Jim Walsh, of the National Catholic Educational Association. "The issue is identifying the sick members that need help and need to be removed."

Details of the imminent evaluation are not yet known. The Rev. Edward Burns, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops officer in charge of vocations who will likely be the Vatican's U.S. point man, says gay admissions, psychological screening tests and enforcement of celibacy rules will all be examined.

Among the concerns of American prelates are reports that an aggressive gay ethos has arisen on campus, manifesting in unwelcoming cliques and ecclesiastic flamboyance--a tendency to embrace the stagier elements of the liturgy, for instance. Witnessing this, some may conclude that the men are freely breaking their vows, but there is no evidence of this. Regardless, books on the subject argue that heterosexual seminarians feel so uncomfortable in this culture that they question their vocations. "People I know quite well have left the seminary either in disgust because people are not keeping vows, or in alienation because they're not gay. In some cases it's a serious problem," says R. Scott Appleby, a history professor at Notre Dame. The Most Rev. …

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