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The Catholic Church should be open and honest about homosexuality

When you're in the middle of a scandal, there is nothing like somebody else's scandal to knock yours off the front pages. So it's just possible that at least a few leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have been saying quiet prayers of thanksgiving for the guys down at WorldCom. Mammon's strong run in recent weeks bought the church some breathing space.

But the nation's bishops must know that they won't be able to ride out the pedophilia scandal under the cover of Wall Street crashes and shenanigans. The problems the scandal has brought to the surface are still much on the minds of the faithful.

And the media have not been asleep. All Catholics _ along with anyone who cares about the church _ owe themselves time with Hanna Rosin's honest, disturbing and ultimately moving report in Sunday's Washington Post on "the skittishness about the whole issue of homosexuality" at the Theological College in Washington.

At one of the nation's premier Catholic seminaries, Rosin writes, "Gay or not seemed to define social cliques, political camps and many a classmate's wrenching personal struggles."

The issue of homosexuality within the priesthood has, so far, been dealt with largely in ideological terms. Conservative Catholics have linked the pedophilia scandal with existence of a "gay subculture" in the seminaries. More liberal Catholics, understandably uneasy with gay bashing, have spoken more of the need to end mandatory celibacy and to permit women to join the priesthood.

The power of Rosin's report is that she deals with the gay issue not as a matter of ideology but as a crisis of candor. She tells the story through the voices of two young men who dropped out of the seminary _ Andrew Krzmarzick, who is straight, and David Kucharski, who is gay.

"It's not like guys were walking around holding hands, but there was just this huge undercurrent that was not addressed," Krzmarzick told Rosin. "Being gay is not the problem, but when it's all underground, it's no good."

Rosin's piece is not the first on this subject, but its balance and resolute avoidance of harsh anti-Catholic, anti-gay or anti-traditionalist rhetoric make it the perfect starting point for the openness that both Krzmarzick and Kucharski passionately _ and rightly _ believe this subject demands.

Catholics of all stripes need, first, to be honest with themselves about the culture that an all-male, celibate priesthood is likely to create now. The celibacy rules interact with a moment in which gays, justifiably, refuse to stay in the closet, and also, paradoxically, with the church's own teaching that celebrates marriage as a co-equal sacrament with holy orders.

Since the 1930s and '40s, as the religion writer Peter Steinfels has pointed out, the church's increasing emphasis on the nobility of family life has had the effect of encouraging more and more heterosexual men to pursue the vocation of parenthood.

It's almost certainly the case as well that smaller families have reduced the pool of potential heterosexual candidates for the priesthood.

Traditionalists have a right to bemoan trends they oppose _ the rise of a gay subculture, for example, or the declining size of Catholic families. But shrewd conservatives have historically been sensitive to how an existing culture interacts with tradition. At times, change is necessary to preserve the essence of a tradition. Isn't it worth asking whether celibacy rules are now having the unintended consequence of vastly reducing the number of heterosexual priests?

To say that a broader pool of potential priests would be good for the church is not to blame gay men for the pedophilia scandal. On the contrary, many gay priests live faithful, celibate lives, and few ever engaged in the heinous acts for which the church is under fire.

The church would be in big trouble if it suddenly declared that no gay men could ever seek the priesthood. Gay bashing is decidedly un-Christian and, by scapegoating a whole class of people, deflects responsibility for pernicious behavior away from individuals _ and from the church leaders who covered it up. But the church will not prosper as long as its public teachings about homosexuality are so at odds with the seminary culture that Rosin describes.

Bringing these issues out into the open risks immense controversy and division over both doctrine and personal behavior. The alternative, though, is worse: an effort to hide from realities now known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If the church is not honest with itself, it cannot be honest to the world. And if it can't be honest to the world, it will lose its capacity to lead.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group

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