John Leo
Years ago an old friend, now deceased, was ordained a priest and joined a new community in the Midwest. My friend was homosexual, and it slowly dawned on me, on a visit out there, that the other priests in the house seemed to be gay too. So was the local bishop, according to the clerical grapevine.

I wish I could say I was overcome by an intense desire to figure out what was going on, but I wasn't. We pushed these things out of our minds in those days. Sample questions I could have asked my friend but didn't: Will straight priests feel welcome in this house, and if not, wasn't this place going to be a gay institution? What would that mean? And what are the chances that a houseful of like-minded, high-energy homosexual men would remain celibate? If they were sexually active, didn't this make them hypocrites, committing themselves publicly to a rule they were all ignoring?

Good questions, finally being asked throughout the Catholic Church. As the battle lines are now drawn, one side says that sexually active gay priests are a small percentage of the clergy, perhaps only 10 percent. The other side says the church has a severe long-term problem with a powerful "lavender mafia" of gay priests and bishops that controls many seminaries and undermines the integrity of the church by encouraging what the church forbids. Intentionally or not, the argument goes, this gay culture discourages straight recruits to the priesthood and gradually makes the clergy more heavily homosexual.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, the current head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently said, "It's an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men." Apprehension about gay domination of the church is now a top-level concern? Ordinary Catholics hadn't been told.

Still, it isn't exactly fresh news. The last cardinal in Boston, Humbertos Medeira, warned the Vatican in 1979 that a sharp increase in the number of gay seminarians meant a decline in straight seminarians. He said, "Where large numbers of homosexuals are present in a seminary, other homosexuals are quickly attracted." Straight applicants, he said, "tend to be repelled."

Jason Berry's 1992 book about sex abuse by priests, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," talked about gay priests who would visit seminaries "on the make," "befriend" high-school students, go to gay bars, and have sex in public toilets or parks." A new book out this week, Michael S. Rose's "Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church," is filled with stories about seminarians who shower in couples, sashay through the halls in pink outfits and talk about their many affairs as "growth experiences." Rose reports that straight seminarians are harassed or forced into sexual situations, and in one case, given this item on a questionnaire: "What would you rather do, masturbate or read pornography?"

Not all gay priests are part of this flamboyant and active gay subculture. A majority isn't. But the subculture has many serious negative effects, eroding morale and confidence in the church. How serious can this church be if it condones sex in its seminaries?

The not-so-subliminal message is that rules aren't very important. The celibacy rule and the ban on non-marital sex will change eventually, the argument goes -- we are just a bit ahead of the curve. Another argument is that sex has nothing to do with morality: Sex is just a bodily function, while morality is about love and social justice.

The rise of the sexually active gay subculture among the clergy didn't cause the horrors of priestly sex abuse. The vast majority of gay priests would never prey on the young. But did the subculture play the role of enabler in the scandals? I think it did, expanding tolerance for the forbidden and generating a sense of futility among the rule-keepers.

Self-deception is infinitely expandable. One man's justification for violating celibacy or the ban on non-marital sex is another man's justification for "intergenerational love," formerly child rape.

The way out for the church is not to hunt down and expel every last gay priest, which would be impossible anyway. But it should restore the pressures to keep priests, gay and straight, from acting out sexually, whether by showering with a mature friend or preying on a child. The key principles are easily learned: Maybe celibacy will be changed someday, but if you make a vow to stay celibate, you ought to keep your word. And in the seminaries, Catholic sexual morality should be taught by people who actually believe it. Is this controversial?


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.