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Researchers say priests concerned
about gay subcultures in seminaries

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

A study of priests in 2001 found that substantial numbers believed there were homosexual subcultures among priests in their dioceses and religious institutes, but priests were more concerned about such subcultures in seminaries.

In a paper delivered Aug. 16 at the meeting in Chicago of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, the researchers said younger priests were more likely than older ones to describe their diocese or religious community or the seminary they attended as having a homosexual subculture.

The paper also described significant differences from one age group to another in the attitudes priests have toward priestly celibacy and inviting resigned priests back into active ministry, whether married or not.

Authors of the paper were Dean R. Hoge, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, and his doctoral student and research assistant, Jacqueline E. Wenger. An advance copy of the text was given to Catholic News Service in Washington.

The study was based on responses to written surveys by more than 1,200 priests in 44 dioceses and 45 religious orders, randomly chosen, from across the United States. In addition, 75 priests participated in individual interviews or focus-group sessions where views on various topics in the questionnaire were explored in greater depth. The study was commissioned by the National Federation of Priests' Councils and funded with a Lilly Foundation grant.

The researchers said their questions about homosexual subcultures in the priesthood or seminary life were occasioned by the views of several prominent researchers who "consider the impact of homosexual subcultures the single most important issue in the overall topic of homosexuality in the priesthood."

In the questionnaire a subculture was defined as a definite group which "has its own preferential friendships, social gatherings and vocabulary."

When asked if such a homosexual subculture existed in their diocese or religious institute, more than half answered "Yes, clearly" (19 percent) or "Probably but not clearly" (36 percent). Only 17 percent said "No," and 28 percent answered "Don't know."

When asked about the existence of such a subculture in the seminary during their student days, 15 percent said yes, 26 percent probably, 44 percent no, and 15 percent don't know.

When respondents were broken down by age groups, younger priests were considerably more likely than older ones to be certain of a homosexual subculture as part of their seminary environment.

Only 3 percent of priests age 66 and older said there was "clearly" a homosexual subculture at the seminary they were in. That rose to 8 percent in the 56-65 age group, 28 percent among those 46-55, 39 percent among those 36-45 and 45 percent among those 35 and under.

Hoge and Wenger said they tested separately for years from ordination to control for possibilities of older priests not recognizing a homosexual subculture as readily or for weaker memory among older priests.

"Years since ordination has a strong independent effect," they said. "Our conclusion, based on these data and on our focus groups, is that homosexual subcultures (in seminaries) increased in visibility, and probably also in numbers, in recent decades."

From focus group findings, the researchers reported that "no priests described negative impacts in their diocese or institute" from homosexual subcultures.

"But we heard numerous negative reports about homosexual subcultures in seminaries," they added.

One priest called it "extremely corrosive." Another described some seminarians as "kind of predators to other people in the seminary community." A third said it "categorized everyone in that if you want to be a priest, you have to be sexual."

The researchers concluded, "A principal reason why subcultures had a greater effect in seminaries than later (in priestly life) is that in seminaries, men preparing for the priesthood are thrust into a close, communal setting. Once out in the parish, priests interact much less with each other and are less affected by whatever subcultures might exist."

On celibacy questions, the researchers found that priests now ages 56-65, most of whom were ordained around 1963-72, are the most liberal. Among them, 73 percent agreed that celibacy should be a matter of choice for diocesan priests and 68 percent thought the church should invite resigned priests back to active ministry, even if they are married.

Among priests ages 25-35, only 33 percent agreed with making celibacy optional and only 23 percent wanted resigned priests to be welcomed back. Among priests ages 36-45, those figures rose to 41 and 34 percent, respectively, and in the 46-55 group the numbers went up to 64 and 53 percent.

Among priests over 65, 48 percent supported optional celibacy and 50 percent backed the return of resigned priests.

When the results of the 2001 survey were compared with surveys that asked the same questions in 1970, 1985 and 1993, the researchers found that the priests ordained in the 1960s consistently held more liberal views than all the others on those issues.

Successive groups ordained since then have been increasingly conservative and increasingly like the oldest priests in the 1970s or '80s. For example, the two lowest points of agreement with the idea of returning resigned priests to ministry come in the views of the over-65 priests in 1970 (22 percent) and the under-36 priests of 2001 (23 percent).

The researchers said those findings reflect "a pattern found more generally in our series of priest surveys -- that the new vision held by the Vatican (Council) II priests was a temporary, not a permanent, vision, and which later priests turned away from, beginning in the 1980s. In the future, if present trends continue, the young priests will come to resemble the old priests in 1970 -- and those of the pre-Vatican II era."