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Declining Homosexuality in the American Priesthood

Closeup of the neck of a priest wearing a black shirt with cassock and white clerical collar

It has been nearly 20 years since the Los Angeles Times conducted a survey of Catholic priests, a venture that yielded much study and commentary about the state of the priesthood in the United States. The results suggested priests believed they were facing the biggest crisis in a century—the abuse scandal—but nevertheless were generally upbeat about their lives as priests.

In late 2020 and early 2021, the Austin Institute fielded a survey replicating a variety of those same questions posed in 2002, aiming to create a dataset that might help analysts understand what has and has not changed over two decades. Here I discuss a portion of what a first round of analyses reveals about answers to questions on priestly sexual identity, behavior, and attitudes—from a co-authored study now accessible at the Social Science Research Network. Tomorrow in Public Discourse, sociologist Brad Vermurlen will discuss a broader series of questions about the state of the American priesthood, the topic of the second of a pair of studies.

It is well documented that the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests is higher than the same within the general population. (I use the term “homosexuality” here in part because Church documents tend to privilege the word, but mostly because comparatively few clergy would use terms like “gay” to describe themselves or their fellows who experience consistent same-sex attractions.) Figures, however, have varied widely. Most recently, sociologist Paul Sullins estimated that about 17 percent of Catholic priests in the United States are homosexual in orientation, a rate around 4 to 5 times that discernible in the wider population. The share of homosexual priests rose during the 1980s, he maintains, but has diminished since the 1990s, and considerably so after 2000.

Read more at The Public Discourse

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