Memo to Andrew Sullivan: There’s No ‘Anti-Gay Purge’

COMMENTARY: Sullivan’s recent article seems erudite and reasonable, unless you are one of the people he is mischaracterizing.

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Is a “purge of gay priests” imminent? Does the “Catholic right” seek such a purge?

To hear self-described “gay Catholic writer” Andrew Sullivan in his recent article “The Gay Church,” you would think the answer to both questions is assuredly a fiery “Yes!” But as an out-and-proud member of what Sullivan would characterize as the “Catholic Right,” I say the answer is “No.”

Sullivan opens his article with this factually correct sentence. “We have no reliable figures on just how many priests in the Catholic Church are gay.” However, his essay goes downhill from there. Sullivan continues: “The Vatican has conducted many studies on its own clergy but never on this subject. In the United States, however, where there are 37,000 priests, no independent study has found fewer than 15 percent to be gay, and some have found as many as 60 percent. The consensus in my own research over the past few months converged on around 30 to 40 percent among parish priests and considerably more than that — as many as 60 percent or higher — among religious orders like the Franciscans or the Jesuits.”

He offers not a single source for any of these claims.

As it happens, we do have one systematic survey. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times conducted a survey of 1,854 randomly selected priests, which included questions about sexual orientation.

According to this survey (Question 55, on Page 25) about 9% of all priests identified themselves as having a homosexual orientation, with another 6% saying “somewhere in between homosexual and heterosexual, but more on the homosexual side.”

That doesn’t sound like 30%-40% — and certainly not 60%. It sounds more like 15% to me.

I am not aware of anything more recent or more systematic than this 16-year-old L.A. Times survey.

My colleague Father Paul Sullins has written a thorough report on the relationship between clergy sexual abuse and self-reported homosexuality among the clergy, using this L.A. Times survey. Looking at Figure 8 of Father Sullins’ report, published by the Ruth Institute, we see that the percentage of new priests reporting a homosexual orientation has varied considerably over time. Fully one-third of the men ordained to the priesthood between 1980 and 1984 reported a homosexual orientation.

Let’s give Andrew Sullivan the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he interviewed priests of a particular age. If so, his conclusions about the whole may be skewed. We still cannot conclude anything systematic from Sullivan’s “research.”

I am particularly sensitive about drawing sweeping conclusions from limited samples because of my participation in debates over the impact of same-sex parenting on children.

Charlotte Patterson was one of the earliest researchers purporting to show that being raised by a same-sex couple created no difficulties for children. She described her data gathering in one of her early studies (Page 116, second column): “Recruitment began when I contacted friends, acquaintances and colleagues who might be likely to know eligible lesbian mother families.”

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Patterson’s same-sex couples in Berkeley reported that their school-aged children were doing just wonderfully.

Later, more systematic surveys, (summarized here) did not confirm these rosy findings. But the damage was done. People made life-changing decisions based on the claims that the “kids will be fine.” Some have found to their sorrow that there was more to the story.

Which brings us back to Andrew Sullivan. In his essay, Sullivan talks about “the preference of the Catholic right,” which he describes as follows: “for all those implicated in the McCarrick cover-up to resign, including, one presumes, Francis (and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?); for a massive investigation to be launched into how gay priests, bishops, and cardinals came to be so common and powerful; and for strict enforcement of the 2005 ban on [homosexual] priests [and seminarians]. But purging the priesthood of ‘homosexual tendencies’ would require removing up to a third of the clergy in the U.S. and dismissing scores of bishops and cardinals, including many who have maintained celibacy, preached orthodoxy, and lived exemplary lives.”

Early on in the current round of this crisis, I specifically stated the opposite of the view that Sullivan so blithely attributes to the “Catholic right.” I posed the question this way: “Should men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies currently in the priesthood be automatically laicized?” My answer was not only “No” — I don’t even know anyone who says “Yes.”

My colleague Father Sullins specifically rejects the conclusion that Sullivan claims we all hold. In an interview with Catholic News Agency, Father Sullins said, “I would certainly not recommend that we remove all homosexuals from the priesthood.”

He cited his knowledge of men with same-sex attraction who are “strong, faithful persons,” adding, “I would hate to have some sort of litmus test for that.”

Admittedly, German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller has stated that men of homosexual orientation should not be ordained, even if they are celibate. Others have said so, as well. But even they, to my knowledge, have not called for the expulsion of celibate same-sex-attracted men already in the priesthood.

To whom, then, is Andrew Sullivan referring in his sweeping statement? Like his claim that 30% of the clergy are homosexual, he offers not a single reference for his claims about the supposed preferences of the “Catholic right.”

Take a closer look at the paragraph I quoted above. Sullivan has swept together some perfectly reasonable positions along with the position no one actually holds. Does Sullivan think that people who are “implicated” in serious cover-up should not resign? Should there not be an investigation? Should we not wish to get at the truth of what has happened, what allowed it to happen, and attempt to do justice?

To his readers in New York magazine, Sullivan in his massive article seems erudite and reasonable, unless you are one of the people he is mischaracterizing.

Let me restate, for the record, my position on what justice requires in this context. “Justice includes punishment for the guilty clergy, protection for the innocent clergy and restitution for the victims.”

I do hope Sullivan agrees with me on this point, at least.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute 

and the author of The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives and How the Church Has Been Right All Along.