Homosexuality and Catholic Priests

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Mr. Bullough is an Adjunct Professor of Nursing at the University of Southern California, and is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Social Science. He is the author of Sexual Variation in Society and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

The widespread exposure of pedophilia within the Catholic clergy has led to a 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 10 or 11, although more might be inclined to ephebophilia, or an attraction to pubescent and post pubescent youth. One reason for this higher percentage is the Catholic practice of encouraging eleven and twelve year olds to enter seminaries and cutting them off from the normal adolescent development. When it comes to homosexuality, however, a significant percentage of clergy, perhaps as high as forty per cent might be labeled homophile, and an even higher percentage than this is believed to be the case for seminary graduates since the 1960s and in the seminaries themselves. I use the term homophile rather than homosexuality 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. In addition, there is a significant number of priests and other religious people taking vows of chastity and celibacy who have low sex drives, neither homophile nor heterophile, and are content with avoiding sex altogether without the conscious struggles of their more heavily libidous colleagues.

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, i.e. monks and nuns (who were not clergy) who follow a special rule which has always demanded abstinence from sexual activities. St. Benedict (c. 480-580), the founder of organized monasticism in the West, undoubtedly conscious of the homoerotic drive among would-be monks, 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.

As I demonstrated in my studies and as John Boswell later did, 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 a very demanding and austere one, and it is not to be wondered that many found it difficult to maintain over the years. The history of the monastic movement in the Middle Ages is one of continual reform as the inhabitants of the monasteries failed to live up to the rigid standards set forth by them. 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 Church 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 (1007-72). 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 century 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. There was in fact worry that detailed discussion of it or any real definition of what took place would encourage others to experiment.

This ambivalence has continued to the present day with periodic denunciations of those who failed to live up to the rule of celibacy but also with a more or less sympathetic understanding of the difficulties that many had in achieving the ideal. This ideal of celibacy was for a long time regarded to be less difficult for nuns but the Third Lateran Council prohibited nuns from sleeping two to a bed, and stipulated also that a lamp should burn in the convent dormitories, a recognition that women also had homoerotic feelings. Relations with children were not a special problem because the age of consent for sex was much lower at that time.

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 of the potential lifetime struggle to preserve a celibate life to those in its seminaries. 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 and thus increasing the percentage of them in the Church.

So panic-stricken has the Church been by this growing minority that when the late Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros tried to remove the Rev. Paul Shanley from his high profile Boston street ministry because of his repeated acts of pedophilia, he hesitated when Shanley, who dismissed 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 was perhaps fear that he and other bishops and archbishops had about the exposure of the widespread homophilic clergy that inhibited them from dealing with the more serious problem of those priests who had sexual relationships with children and adolescents and which they well might have felt was a minor public relations issue in 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 and that their struggles to preserve celibacy is no less difficult than it is for their heterophilic counterparts and neither group is much more prone than the other to seek out sexual relations with minors. Since 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, Sexual Variation in Society and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • James Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

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Kelly Anderson - 10/15/2003





Kelly Anderson - 10/15/2003

I don't understand why people want to be gay.Don't yo know that GOD dosen't approve of gays.It's not right.Why do you think he made a man for a woman and a woman for a man?Answer me.Ya'll are crazy for liking your own gender.

Bud Wood - 5/18/2002

In the context of pedophilia within the Catholic clergy, such makes one question why the institution of "altar boys" was created.