Gays And The Seminary

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. Wilton Gregory, who heads the bishops' group, has come to a similar conclusion. "[T]here does exist a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexual men think twice," he said last month. Such complaints irritate gay clergymen and their defenders. "I think straight priests and seminarians shouldn't be whining," says the Rev. Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. "I just don't think it's a big deal."

Right now, gays are admitted to seminaries as long as they meet the same rigorous standards as straights. They must pass written psychological exams including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which can detect a broad list of traits, though not sexual orientation. In addition, applicants undergo in-depth and extremely personal inter-views. According to admissions officers, it is common to inquire into an applicant's sexual orientation point-blank.

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia is believed to be the only one in America that bans gays outright, seminary officials say. Most others, like St. Patrick's Seminary near San Francisco, have no restrictions. "Shouldn't you consider a homosexual as equally fit? I would think yes," says the Rev. Gerald Coleman, the rector there. However, a growing number of administrators are adopting specific requirements for flagging gays with notorious histories. At St. Mary seminary in Mundelein, Ill., men who have HIV are excluded, according to the provost, the Rev. Thomas Baima, while Conception Seminary College in Missouri is considering a criminal-background check of applicants.

Modern seminary practice nonetheless encourages all students to reflect on their own sexuality without fear of reprisal, says the Rt. Rev. Jeremiah McCarthy, director of accreditation for the Association of Theological Schools. This represents a major sea change. Decades ago celibacy training at the seminaries was conducted entirely in euphemisms--even the human-sexuality chapters of moral-theology textbooks were written in Latin, as if in code. Pope John Paul II changed that in a 1992 call for one-on-one "priestly formation," in which a faculty member helps mentor seminarians through all aspects of their spiritual growth, including psychological and psychosexual development. These checks and balances have resulted in a sharp reduction in charges of sexual abuse, experts say.

News of the Vatican's probe has drawn mixed reactions. Dr. Jon Fuller, a priest and physician at Boston Medical Center who specializes in treating priests afflicted with AIDS, calls the effort to screen out gays "unfortunate." Not only will it further reduce the number of seminarians, which has plunged from 49,000 in 1965 to fewer than 4,000 today, but it may also reintroduce a code of secrecy among those gay men who enter the seminary anyway--or discover they're gay only after enrolling. "If we now say you can only be approved if you're straight or appear to be straight, we really are creating a very dysfunctional situation that from a psychological perspective is tempting disaster," he says. "It brings us back to a very unhealthy time."

At St. John's, officials welcome the study. "I think we do a good job recruiting solid candidates, and welcome the opportunity to do better," says the Rt. Rev. Helmut Hefner, the school's rector. He accepts that his gay enrollment may be as high as 50 percent, but that hasn't caused any discomfort to heterosexuals, much less an epidemic of straight flight, he says. Jim Bevacqua, the student-body president, agrees. "I can speak firsthand, as a heterosexual seminarian. I have a lot of friends here who are heterosexual, I know they are, and this has never been an issue here at our seminary. To be honest, people don't talk about it much." With the upcoming Vatican investigation, that will likely change.