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In Penn & Teller's Bullshit, Season 7, there is an episode about the Vatican. I just watched it via this post on the blog, Arizona Atheist.

In it, around the 8m:10s mark, a statement is made that around 20-50% of Catholic priests may be homosexual. I'm transcribing the episode here for the pertinent quote. It opens with Keith Wood, the executive director of The National Secular Society, making a comment about the Catholic Church's opposition of homosexuality:

Keith Wood: And the almost ultimate irony is that I do not know of an organization anywhere that has such a high proportion of gay people in its employ.

Penn Jillette: Well, the Bullshit staff, but he doesn't know that. According to some studies, somewhere between twenty (20) and fifty (50) percent of all priests may be gay.

What studies/data support this estimate, and is it accurate?

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    @nico: It depends on how Penn's mentioned studies define the term, "homosexual" -- 1) Some form of same-sex contact, 2) Some homosexual feelings, 3) Self-identified as homosexual, 4) Only sexual arousal for the same sex, or 5) something else? – Hendy Dec 27 '11 at 18:46
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    @nico: One could make that case. One could also wait for the studies Penn refers to (if they exist) to be brought to light. Perhaps several exist and use several methods for an estimate, resulting in 20% at the low end and 50% at the high end. 20-50% isn't meaningless, it means 20-50%. I think what you mean is "fabricated." If that's the case, I really don't know. I'm the one seeking documentation here, remember? :) – Hendy Dec 27 '11 at 21:44
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    "some studies" is code used when the person making the claim has found a study that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. "may be" (gay) means that even that study admits it doesn't have any real evidence. – DJClayworth Dec 28 '11 at 4:20
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    @Hendy: I really meant meaningless. Personally, I don't care if they have a political agenda, as I wouldn't really care whether catholic priests were all gay, good on them if that was the case! What really annoys me is the misuse of statistics that is continuously given to us by the media. When is the last time you've seen an error bar on a newspaper or on TV? I don't think I ever did... They tell you that x% of xxx do yyy. That does not really mean anything unless you compare it with some other population. – nico Dec 28 '11 at 10:31
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    @chad: Just rewatched the end and there are no references provided. – Hendy Dec 28 '11 at 21:53
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Finally found what looks like a reliable scientific study on the subject. It isn't itself a study of the orientation of priests, but it quotes several others that also look reliable.

Homosexual Applicants to the Priesthood: How Many and Are They Psychologically Healthy?

While there are no official estimates of the number of homosexual men in the priesthood, best current estimates range from 10% to 60% [...] with most experts and authorities who have access to this information more closely estimating between 25% and 40%.

Note that this is for homosexual orientation, not practicing homosexuals.

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    An excellent find. I'd be tempted to directly quote the sources that it references, if available - they seem to be the real story. – Oddthinking Dec 29 '11 at 0:22
  • Nice find, good answer. – Sklivvz Dec 29 '11 at 1:00
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    The studies also takes a look at the number, and arrives at a rate of 22%. The sample is quite small, though, at 63 applicants. It's interesting nonetheless. – Borror0 Dec 30 '11 at 18:25
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    The actual study referenced isn't good for this because it is looking at applicants rather than priests. – DJClayworth Dec 30 '11 at 18:45
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    Note that estimates of the number of homosexuals in the general population range between about 1% and 20%. news.gallup.com/poll/6961/what-percentage-population-gay.aspx – Daniel R Hicks Nov 30 '17 at 17:19
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Reverend Donald Cozzens argues in his book, The Changing Face of the Catholic Priesthood that that the Catholic priesthood has become a gay profession. I have not read The Changing Face of the Catholic Priesthood, but Donald L. Boisvert and Robert E.Goss say in Gay Catholic Priests and Clerical Sexual Misconduct, page 2, that Cozzens cites studies from 1989 which estimate that 48.5 per cent of Catholic priests and 55.1 per cent of seminarians are gay. Surveys have indicated that around 50 per cent of priests, both heterosexual and homosexual, are not celibate.

Robert E. Goss says in his paper, 'Always a Bride, Never a Groom', published in Gay Catholic Priests and Clerical Sexual Misconduct, pages 123-4, that shortly after his ordination, Goss met another Jesuit, and they fell in love. The two priests wanted to exchange vows to live together in union. With friends in attendance, another priest friend celebrated mass, where they formally blessed the rings they had exchanged months before in a quiet bedroom ritual. Of course one man does not make 20-50 per cent of the church, but Goss reports widespread acceptance among the Jesuits and a willingness of leaders to close their eyes to the facts.

There are examples of homosexual senior clergy and, for example, allegations of homosexuality by Cardinal Spellman are well documented.

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    "not celibate" or "not continent"? My understanding is that "celibacy" in the context of Catholic clergy means being unmarried, which I would assume applies to much more than 50% of priests, while abstaining from sex is referred to as "continence" – purposeful porpoise Nov 30 '17 at 16:15
5

The paper quoted in the accepted answer cites its info to a book edited by Plante, which actually gives the info as

given estimates that more than 40 percent of Catholic priests are homosexual (Cozzens, 2000), and the vast majority of them do not abuse anyone, the request to evaluate priests or priest applicants to diagnose homosexuality seems odd.

The ultimate reference behind this chain being

Cozzens, D. (2000). The changing face of the priesthood. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

which has an entire chapter (around p. 100) on the topic. In it we find that:

  • an NBC report put the figure between 23% and 58% of Catholic clergy having a homosexual orientation
  • "Sociologist James G. Wolf in his book Gay Priests concluded that 48.5% of priests and 55.1% of seminarians were gay"
  • "I heard a religious order priest with long experience in both formation and leadership state publicly at a conference on AIDS and the mission of the Church that 80 percent of his large East Coast oder was gay."

The amount of original info is alas limited to that last quote and there's no direct citation for the NBC report... but rather to

Timothy Unsworth, The Last Priests in America, (NY: Crossroad, 1991) p. 248

In addition to the book edited by Plante, the paper quoted in the accepted answer cites a newspaper column by Plante in SF Gate... which alas gives no figures on prevalence of homosexuality among the clergy. So the paper cited in the accepted answer, despite being peer-reviewed, appears to have come up with that range of numbers by a somewhat strange indirect synthesis, not directly from the sources it cites.

Anyway, my best guess from all this is that Penn & Teller figures (20-50) are approximations to the numbers (23-58) from this NBC report... which I don't have first-hand knowledge of.

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