A survey of Roman Catholic priests by a newspaper, the Kansas City Star, has stunned many American Catholics with its finding that priests are dying of AIDS at a much higher rate than the average US population. The survey results—implying that a significant number of priests are gay and not celibate—have prompted anger by some Catholics at "wayward clergy," while others are pleading with the church and its members to be more tolerant about the sexual orientation of those who serve the church. The Star posted the random, confidential survey to 3,000 priests late last year, and 801—or 27 percent—responded. The results showed that:

  • Seven respondents—about 1 in 114—said they either had HIV or AIDS or might have but had not been tested. This would translate into about 400 priests nation-wide. In the general US population, the average is between 1 in 300 and 1 in 420, according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. (The National Catholic AIDS Network, established in 1989 to minister to those who suffer from HIV/AIDS, supports the survey's projected estimate.)
  • Six of 10 respondents said they knew at least one priest who had died of an AIDS-related illness.
  • One-third of those surveyed knew a priest currently living with AIDS.
  • Three-quarters of those responding described themselves as heterosexual, 15 percent said they were homosexual and 5 percent bisexual. The remainder declined to categorize themselves. By contrast, in the general population an estimated 5 to 10 percent are homosexual.
  • Two-thirds of the respondents said that sexuality either was not addressed at all or not addressed enough in their theological training.

The survey also asked priests to describe the church's response in ministering to priests with HIV or AIDS. Sixty-five percent said the church had been caring and compassionate. Twelve percent said the church took care of only the priests' basic needs. Two percent said the church ignored priests, and another two percent said the church was judgmental and uncaring.

According to the Star's survey, 14 percent of respondents said changing church doctrine on homosexuality would be extremely effective. However, more than half the respondents said changing the doctrine would not be effective at all.

Fifteen percent said that eliminating the church's celibacy requirement would be extremely effective. More than half, however, said eliminating celibacy would not be at all effective. In releasing its survey results, the Kansas City Star also featured an article about Thom Savage, a popular Jesuit and college president, who died in May 1999 of an AIDS-related illness.

"In 1988, when he was chosen to lead Rockhurst College at age 41, Savage was the nation's youngest Jesuit college president," Star reporter Judy L. Thomas wrote. "Over the next eight years, he became a highly respected community leader." Savage kept his illness a secret even from his own family until just weeks before his death."

As Savage's death illustrates, a priest with AIDS is still a matter so sensitive that it has yet to be fully addressed by the church, by priests' families—or even by the priests themselves," Thomas wrote. When Savage died, Rockhurst College released a statement saying he had died of severe respiratory problems. The death certificate, however, said his death was linked to AIDS. Neither the Vatican nor the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington DC has commented on the survey. But Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit told the Kansas City Star that the situation was "depressing. The bishops just won't face the fact that there's a problem and that they should be doing something."

Tom Roberts, managing editor of a leading religious newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City, told Ecumenical News International: "The church knows there is a significant gay population among the clergy. Most of them are wonderful ministers. The church also knows some are sexually active. It refuses to engage in any significant discussion about sexuality. It labels gays, and then stands in wonder when people are fascinated by reports of priests with AIDS."

Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

See the Kansas City Star's three-part report, " AIDS in the Priesthood," at the newspaper's Web site.As noted in past ChristianityToday.com Weblogs, Catholic officials around the Kansas City area say the statistics are "sad" and "a disappointment," but not a surprise. And a media watchdog site, Newswatch, calls the Star's statistics "flawed."In his commentary for Beliefnet, Ralph McInerny, professor of medieval philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, blames liberal theologians, not Catholic doctrine, for AIDS spreading among clergy.