Looking the Other Way: Homosexual Seminarians Need Pastoral Care, Not Benign Neglect

Almost every priest spends between five and eight years in a seminary. During this time he is formed spiritually, theologically, and psychologically. It is a time which has a profound impact on the young man who experiences it. It is apparent from the news reports, and informal conversations with other spiritual directors, that many of the priests suffering from the psycho-sexual disorders mentioned in the first part of this article [” Homosexuality in the Priesthood,” October] were educated within the last 20 years. There are also the disturbing and persistent rumors that homosexuality is “alive and well” in the seminaries of our country. Some of these reach the press; most are squelched before they reach the printed page. One need only talk to a psychologically healthy heterosexual seminarian (and yes, there are such beings) to be brought up to date on the latest homosexual scandals at a particular seminary.

This would not be so distressing if these were rare cases in a few poorly run seminaries. Unfortunately, there is a disturbing similarity in the content of such tales and an even more disturbing generality to them. I know of no seminary in this country which has not had to face problems in this area in the last ten years. Some have dealt with the problem in a positive and constructive way. Others have dealt with the problem by denying it exists and eliminating those who would say otherwise.

Much of the reflections in this section are the result of extensive conversations I have held with seminarians from four major seminaries. These reflections are not meant to be accusatory toward any seminary in particular. Rather they are meant to inform and constructively help Church officials become aware of the seriousness of the problem and its tragic impact on seminarians who are heterosexual and homosexual.

Just as we have been able to identify certain types of priests who are afflicted with gender disorders, so too we can identify various types of seminarians. There are differences in exhibition of the disorder because seminarians are under closer scrutiny as to their fitness for the priesthood, and they live on a daily basis with one another in fairly large groups. I will present profiles of three types of homosexual seminarians. I will then offer some reflections on what it is like for a heterosexual seminarian to live in this troubled atmosphere.

Three Homosexual Types

The Celibate Homosexual Seminarian: This seminarian is in the process of reconciling himself to his disorder. He has discovered himself to be this way; he did not choose it. He has a deep love for the Lord and His Church, and feels called to serve Him in the priesthood. He is aware of the difficulties his disorder will present, but he is certain enough of his call that he is willing to take the risk.

He has taken the usual psychological tests for the diocese, and they may have revealed some gender disorder. His vocation director is aware of the problem but sees little difficulty, as long as he can remain celibate. Sometimes the seminary officials are told, but they often have the same reaction as his vocation director. He is told to discuss the problem with a good spiritual director who will help him “deal with it.”

There are some residual problems with adolescent masturbation, but he is gradually bringing this habit under control. He finds it more difficult than heterosexual seminarians to be personally chaste because the living environment offers him continued temptations. One seminarian put it this way, “I want to be pure, but when you think about sex a lot, and when you live among those you are sexually attracted to, it’s really difficult. It would be like a straight college guy living in a girls’ dorm and trying to keep out of temptation. It’s easier said than done.”

This seminarian usually has a strong personal prayer life which has enabled him gradually to come to terms with his disorder. He usually has a strong devotion to the Holy Eucharist and is somewhat “conservative” theologically. Some of his classmates know he is gay, but it is not an issue for them. Since his more sexually active gay classmates are likely to be the topic of seminary gossip, he appears almost normal, and even somewhat virtuous. Since he makes no “waves” and has no other personality disorders, he is usually passed on to Orders with good evaluations from the seminary.

The “Occasionally Active” Seminarian: This seminarian is much like his priestly counterpart. In fact, if the “occasionally active” priest is interviewed, he will usually admit to having been in this category while in the seminary. This seminarian knows he is gay and might occasionally wish it were otherwise, but change is deemed impossible.

He thinks about sex frequently, and finds himself very attracted to the “more handsome” members of the seminary community. His constant interaction with these men provide him with ample opportunity for fantasy and he constantly catches himself “eyeing them.” He is often tempted to act out, but controls his sexual desires through frequent masturbation.

He does not see his habitual masturbation as a moral problem, but merely as a means of physical release. He is aware of Church teaching in this area, but considers it “hopelessly outdated.” When he discusses the matter with his spiritual director, the priest does not seem too concerned. He dabbles in pornography, and is an occasional patron of the adult bookstore” a safe distance from the seminary.

He is aware there are many other seminarians who are gay, and a frequent topic of conversation in his group is “who is and who isn’t.” He is apt to presume more seminarians are gay than really are; but wild numbers such as 70-80 percent give him comfort, and make him feel at least statistically normal.

He talks incessantly about sexual matters, and his humor is always related to the topic. He verbally seduces other seminarians with offers that, if they are not taken up, can always be turned into humor. He is often considered rather “camp” and dresses in that style, especially when he goes out. He is an occasional patron of the gay bar “scene,” usually accompanying a seminarian who is a regular client. Several times a year he will “pick up” someone at these bars for a “one night stand.” At times he will speak to his director about this, but either does not take his advice or is counseled that he should merely continue to attempt to “integrate his sexuality into his total person.” Sadly, neither he nor at times his director see these occasional lapses as an impediment to Orders.

Sometimes he does not even bring the topic to his director, especially if he is worried he might have to deal with the question seriously. He rationalizes by thinking if the problem were that serious the seminary officials would be more upset about it. Surely, he reasons, they aren’t so blind as to be unaware of the activities of a rather large minority of students. If they aren’t worried, why should he be?

This seminarian often has a minimal prayer life. He wants to pray, at least occasionally, but like his priestly counterpart, finds it too threatening and painful. He does what is expected of him spiritually (he attends Mass, prayer sessions, and receives spiritual direction), but is certainly not considered devout.

The other seminarians “know about him” but, since his lapses are only occasional, he gets by without being hassled too much. The faculty may have heard “rumors” but there is nothing they can prove. Unless he makes a fatal blunder and “gets caught” he usually makes it through the seminary evaluation process with at least a fair recommendation.

This seminarian can cause major problems after ordination since he has never really dealt with his psychosexual disorder. Fear of a poor evaluation kept him somewhat subtle and cautious in the seminary, but after ordination he has a sense of freedom from accountability which can lead him to indulge his lusts in ever more flagrant ways, and he does so, either alone or with a group of other priests.

Promiscuous Seminarians

The Sexually Promiscuous Seminarian: This seminarian too, is quite similar to his priestly counterpart. He is usually an active homosexual prior to his entry into the seminary. He has often deceived his vocation director into thinking he is a non-practicing homosexual. He is extremely adept at living a “double life” and thinks there is nothing wrong with his sexual orientation.

He is a regular customer of the local gay bar and is well known there as a seminarian. Depending on the watchfulness of the seminary officials he may even bring a “friend” back to his room for the night. Other seminarians may know this is going on, but choose not to say anything to him since “it will do no good.” They say nothing to the seminary officials because they can’t prove it, and they have heard rumors that the last person to say something had more trouble than the accused.

He is quite active in seminary life and is considered by some to be the model of the open, caring seminarian. He has read most of the theological literature on homosexuality, and has espoused the dissenting positions of those who say sexual orientations are morally neutral. He considers himself moving toward celibacy if he is in a “stable relationship,” and masks his lust in the trappings of a “love relationship” in which he feels personally fulfilled.

At times he has had a “lover” who is also a seminarian, and they are often viewed as a couple by other seminarians. Occasionally he may be criticized for being too exclusive, but rarely is the issue of promiscuity raised.

He is involved with the “gay scene” both locally, if there is one, and in the seminary. If you want to know if the “rumors” about someone are true, then you go to this person for the definitive answer. If he doesn’t know, then no one does. This seminarian takes a greater risk of “being caught” and thus is much more clever than the occasionally active seminarian. He is a “pro,” and he likes other seminarians to know it. Just as in our criminal justice system, it is the first offenders who are most often caught and punished. The real professionals are much more cautious and are only caught with a concerted effort. Since seminaries rarely make such efforts, it is usually the occasionally active seminarian who is dismissed for moral turpitude.

The Heterosexual Dilemma

In the midst of this mire, dwells the typical, psychologically normal, heterosexual seminarian. That there are such beings should not be lost sight of in the midst of an essay on homosexual seminarians. Theirs is a special cross to bear, for they are acutely aware of what is going on but feel helpless to do anything about it. Especially in seminaries with a significant gay population tolerated by seminary officials, theirs is often the lot of any “silent majority” who, because of a vocal minority, actually think they are an “oppressed minority group.”

They live in an atmosphere which is at times satiated with the topic of homosexuality. The humor is almost totally geared toward sexual innuendo. It is a daily topic of conversation among a large number of their classmates. They dare not seriously criticize the morality of the homosexual seminarian since they would be looked upon as “closed minded,” or worse—judgmental. They are reduced to a subtle criticism through humor, which only adds to the mirth with which the topic is treated in some seminaries.

A number of seminarians expressed the opinion they were made to feel “abnormal” if they were heterosexual. One put it well, “If I say I’m gay, then I’m open—if I stress my heterosexuality, then I’m repressed!” This is not only the attitude of some students, but sadly of some faculty members as well. One advisor in a school of theology criticized a seminarian for being “too comfortable with his heterosexuality.”

The sexually normal seminarian is also confronted with seminarians who attempt to seduce him in subtle ways. A favorite ploy is to invite the “mark” out to a bar. On the way there the destination is changed in favor of a “gay bar.” If the heterosexual seminarian objects, he is faced with ruining the evening or walking home. If he accepts he runs the risk of giving the wrong impression about his own sexuality.

Another ploy is to engage the “mark” in homosexual humor at the dinner table. In order to be part of the conversation the normal seminarian also laughs (and some comments are genuinely funny) and adds his humor to the conversation. Later the gay seminarian comes to his room for a friendly chat. The topic is steered onto homosexuality, usually “who is and who isn’t.” After engaging him in this conversation to ascertain what the “mark’s” true feelings are, a “pass” is made. This takes various forms, such as hopping onto his lap, or grabbing him in a “delicate” area.

The normal seminarian doesn’t know whether this is a continuation of the humor or an attempted proposition. The gay seminarian is in a no-lose situation, since if the “mark” responds he is quite happy, but if he gets angry he can always respond with “can’t you take a joke?” I have spoken personally with several heterosexual seminarians who have experienced this subtle form of “sexual terrorism.”

We see, then, the plight of the heterosexual seminarian in some seminaries. Granted these are worst case scenarios, but they do occur, and what is worse, the normal seminarian is often sent to such a seminary without any warning there could possibly be a problem in this area. When he begins to get suspicious after the first month, he thinks it is all just rumor, or a sick brand of humor. Little does he realize his worst fears are probably true. When it finally dawns on him what precisely is going on, it can shatter his notion of the priesthood and leave him a cynic. Indeed, he often leaves the seminary.

I am the first to admit seminaries are not brothels of rampant homosexuality, but we must stop denying there is a problem. There is a problem, and a serious one in some seminaries. What role does the seminary have to play in a practical solution to this tragic problem?

Taking Remedial Action

Obviously, the seminarians profiled in the section above all live, work, and pray in the context of a seminary. The priests in charge of the institution are charged by the Bishop of the diocese with the responsibility of educating these young men to be good priests. No one has ever seriously put forth the idea that these men are deliberately turning out substandard, psychologically warped men who are a danger to the Church and society. Such a claim cannot be substantiated and is slanderous to the good intentions of the priests who in good faith direct these institutions. No such claim is meant in these reflections.

Nonetheless, we must deal with the ever growing perception that there is a real problem to be faced in this area. One need only recall a recent seminar on homosexual candidates, held at one of the largest and most respected seminaries in this country, to observe the intense concern on the part of both the seminary and diocesan officials in regard to this problem. Over one-hundred vocation directors and twelve bishops gathered to hear three days of discussion on the issue. It was the largest turnout in the history of such gatherings sponsored by the seminary. During the discussions some interesting points were made that have direct bearing on the discussion at hand.

Diocesan Problems: At times we are quick to blame the seminary for the problem when in reality, they are only dealing with other people’s mistakes. This is not to say the seminary is not to blame for some aspects of the problem, but we must realize seminarians are not born in the seminary, they are sent to it. This means someone at the diocesan level approved the application of the seminarian who will later act out sexually.

This raises the question of accepting any young men with gender disorders. We are not speaking here of those who are blatant homosexuals. Rather, we are speaking of those with borderline sexual disorders who might be helped to grow out of the condition if the right care were given to them.

Single cases of such seminarians could be handled by almost any seminary. Unfortunately, single cases do not exist for a seminary. Most large seminaries service a number of dioceses, some as many as forty or more.

If a vocation director interviews 15 candidates for the seminary and two of them have borderline gender disorders, but still are worth taking a chance on, he looks for a good seminary in which to place them. Almost any vocation director will do this. The problem presents itself when all forty dioceses who send men to this particular seminary send “one or two”. What would have been an isolated case, has now become a substantial number of young men with some psycho-sexual disorder living in the same building. I submit that this is asking for trouble.

Problems After Acceptance: If the seminarian who needs help had been a member of a very small minority group, his interaction with the vast majority of heterosexual seminarians would have challenged him to grow toward normality. Quite the contrary, when he arrives at the seminary he gradually discovers he is not that abnormal. There are not a few other seminarians with the same feelings and desires. Granted, they are not the majority, but there are enough of them to form a significant support group (in the wrong direction) which makes treatment difficult if not impossible, since there is no way of getting them to admit they need help. Multiply this by the eight years of seminary formation, and you will see seminaries are faced with a significant dilemma not of their making.

If they refuse to take these seminarians, then they run the risk of alienating the diocese that recommends him. The problem is made worse if the diocesan official who recommended the young man is homosexual. Often this priest does not view his orientation as a “problem” and resents it when the seminary does. If they do accept his candidate, then they run the risk of increasing what might be an already substantial gay segment. The seminary is caught in a no-win situation.

I state this fact in order to deflect some criticism from the already much-maligned seminary system. The seminaries may indeed have a gay problem, but the dioceses sent it to them.

Problems Specific to Seminaries

I certainly do not mean to exonerate the seminary from all blame in this problem. Granted they were sent the problem, but it has been their inadequate response which has exacerbated it. Some, for a long time, have denied the existence of any problem with homosexuality. They have allowed a “gay subculture” to develop within the seminary to such an extent that to do anything now would be a major undertaking almost certain to attract the attention of the bishops. No seminary wants a reputation for having a “gay problem,” and to deal with it successfully might well take a large scale effort.

Another problem the seminaries face is the presence of gay priests, or those priests who see nothing wrong with the orientation, on the faculty. They are certainly not the majority, but they are present and vocal.

It is important to realize these priests do not view the homosexual disorder as a problem which needs to be addressed. To admit the gay seminarian is a problem would be to admit they themselves are a problem, and no one likes to admit he is a problem. Any type of major effort to deal with the problem of homosexuality in the seminary, except in the context of affirmation, is personally threatening to these priests and will be resisted as such.

Something especially problematic in schools of theology is the benign tolerance afforded to dissenting theological positions. There is a pervasive atmosphere in some seminaries which puts the dissenting theological opinions on an equal footing with the ecclesiastical Magisterium. While this occurs on many issues, it is predominant in the area of sexual ethics.

When seminarians who are homosexually oriented are told in their moral theology courses that sexual orientations are morally neutral, it provides little impetus to view their homosexual condition as a disorder. Also prevalent is the notion that the meaning of any sexual act is determined, not by its finality, but by its ability to be “integrated into the person’s total sexuality.” If your sexual orientation happens to be homosexual, then homosexual actions can be “integrated into a person’s total sexuality.” Only if homosexuality is perceived as a disorder can homosexual actions be considered generally and unequivocally reprehensible.

Now it is this precise point which many contemporary moralists will not admit. They maintain homosexual acts between consenting adults in a “stable relationship” can be moral. Since they work from a moral system which admits of no “intrinsically disordered actions” they cannot a priori state homosexual acts are immoral. The most they can say is “it depends.”

Most seminary rectors would dismiss a seminarian if it could be proven he has been sexually active in the seminary. Why is this? Is the student dismissed because his action is wrong for anyone in any context, or is it wrong only in the seminary context, which is seeking at this stage of our history only celibate males? Why seminary officials react so harshly to homosexual actions needs to be clear in the minds of all the students in a particular seminary. It cannot be perceived as a “club rule” that has to be enforced by the manager to keep his job.

Seminary officials cannot have it both ways. They cannot silently tolerate professors of moral theology who give an apologetic for homosexuality to their students, and then react harshly when the students put that theology into practice. I do not mean seminary moral professors advocate rampant promiscuity. They do not. What many do advocate is a modified proportionalist ethic in which active homosexuality could be considered morally good. Seminarians are not stupid. They can see where a theory will logically lead. If we give someone with a problem a “loophole” which allows him to conquer his problem by redefining it as “no problem,” we should not be surprised when he uses it.

Beneath this theology of dissent in sexual matters lies an even more pervasive individualism. It is present in society in general, and we should not be surprised when seminarians exhibit its effects. This is an attitude which says, “I want what I want, when I want it, how I want it, right now.” This attitude takes offense at demands made by any external authority. The ultimate norm of morality is the individual person. The emphasis lies in what a person “feels” rather than what he “thinks.”

Seminary officials are sensitive to this attitude and may not make absolute demands of the seminarian. They prefer to publish “expectations” which one is to “gradually appropriate.” Thus if one is not comfortable with daily Eucharist, then he should work into it gradually. If one has sexual problems, these too can be approached gradually. I am not saying this “principle of gradualism” should never be used. I am merely pointing out it can be used to the extent that the seminarian might gain the impression that nothing is immediately expected or demanded of him as a disciple of the Lord. As a matter of practice no one should be admitted to vows of the diaconate until they have lived celibacy faithfully and joyfully for two years.

Positive Responses

We have examined some areas where the seminary response is less than adequate. What positive steps can be taken by the seminary to help the Church deal with this problem?

1. The seminary should establish an “internal” quota for seminarians with gender disorders. I do not mean that these young men should not be given a chance, simply that the seminary should accept only as many as they could reasonably help. The population should never be so large as to allow the formation of any type of “gay subculture” which fosters the humor and lifestyles which can spread like a cancer in a seminary. The seminary should also have the necessary staff available at both the spiritual and psychological levels to offer appropriate help to these seminarians.

2. The seminary should be honest and up front with the dioceses it serves. It should insist the diocese ask explicit questions concerning the sexual lives of all prospective candidates. If any type of gender disorder is suspected it should be clearly conveyed, at least verbally, to the rector. The seminary in turn should be brutally frank with the diocese about any suspicions it may have regarding gender disorders the student has exhibited while in the seminary context.

3. The rector should be honest with the seminarians about this topic. He should deal with it explicitly during the orientation days for the new students. He should state in no uncertain terms that any type of homosexual activity will bring about immediate dismissal. He should be very firm in dealing with any type of effeminacy in dress, body language, or humor. This is learned behavior, and it can just as easily be “unlearned.” The effeminate seminarian (though not always gay) needs to be confronted for his own sake and for the sake of the people he will one day serve. He will simply be ineffective in a parish setting, especially among the youth. He needs to be told this and be held accountable for the modification of his behavior.

4. The bishop of the diocese, in conjunction with the rector of the seminary, should make his expectations clear to the academic faculty. It should be clear to the faculty that, although seminarians should be exposed to the thought of dissenting theologians, it is their responsibility as “Catholic theologians” receiving a mandatum from the bishop, to present accurately and advocate convincingly the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, both ordinary and extraordinary. If they believe they are unable to do this with intellectual honesty, then they should just as honestly remove themselves from the faculty. If they are unwilling to do this, then the bishop of the diocese should begin the procedures for removal of the “canonical mission.” If the Church cannot guarantee the advocacy of her teaching in her own seminaries, then she can guarantee it nowhere.

5. The seminary should foster a joyful and positive notion of celibacy as a preferential way of loving the Lord and his Church. The seminarian should see celibacy not as imposed ad extra by the Church, but as an opportunity for him to use his genital sexuality as a precious gift to God. The seminarian should see the inner connection between celibacy and the priesthood, not as a conditio sine qua non, but as a personal witness which will make his configuration to Christ ever more intelligible in the eyes of the faithful. This should be done frequently through rectors conferences and seminars.

6. The seminary should foster a daily prayer regimen which would provide a minimum reinforcement for the student sincerely attempting to lead a life of holiness in preparation for ordination. This does not mean a return to the days of responding mechanically to a bell, but rather the development of a real seriousness of purpose in the living out of a daily prayer life. Living a life of committed celibacy is difficult even for those who love the Lord, it is impossible for those who are merely His acquaintances.

No More Evasion

We have now completed our somewhat lengthy reflections on the problem of homosexuality in the priesthood and seminary communities. There will be those who minimize the entire problem and say that those who write about such topics have the real problem. There will be those who take the reflections in the article and use them as a “club” to malign seminaries who are honestly trying to deal with what is a minimal problem in their particular institution. I regret both of these responses, though I know they will Occur.

As I stated at the outset, these reflections are not meant to be accusatory. Rather they are meant to raise serious issues which, if not dealt with soon, can bring untold harm and embarrassment to the Church we all love.

We must stop denying there is any problem. We must treat these men, young and old, with the compassion of Christ. We do them no favor by refusing to admit they have a disorder, or refusing to help them conquer their sexual slavery because of ecclesiastical politics or our own homophobia. These men are our brothers in Christ. The Lord loves them and desires intensely that they return that love. We must love them with the love of the Lord. We must love them with the same love which moved the Lord to say to Mary Magdalene, “Go, and avoid the sin in the future.” We must love them enough to “speak the unspeakable.”


  • Monsignor X

    Monsignor X, vocation director at a major U.S. Diocese, has been active in formation programs for over 10 years.

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