Some priests say it always was, but that few people discussed it until after the 1960s, when sexuality be came an acceptable topic in society. Others say the ratio increased in the 1970s after the Second Vatican Council, when many heterosexual priests who had pushed for wider liberalization of the church left the priesthood to get married.
Several gay priests and former seminarians said their sexual orientation had no bearing on their calling. Others said their orientation may have subconsciously influenced their choice.
Tom McLaughlin, a former seminarian, knew by the time he turned 10 that he wanted to be a priest. When he went to the seminary, he knew he wasn't interested in girls, he said, but he didn't realize he was gay. As he reflects now, he acknowledges that his orientation may have played a subtle role, given the pressures he might have faced outside the church in a society that often assumes people are heterosexual.
"It certainly saved me all kinds of questions about dating," said McLaughlin, now 54. "Marriage wasn't on my mind. Celibacy didn't seem like it would be any problem. Maybe that had something to do with it."
In fact, several priests said, for a young, gay Catholic man--especially someone who accepts church teachings on homosexuality--what better, more appropriate place than the celibate life of the priesthood?
Several others suggested that other qualities about some gay men make them well-suited for the priesthood. They may have been through personal struggles that make them more empathetic to other people's life struggles, for example.
In the seminaries, issues of intimacy and the realities of celibacy were rarely addressed, priests and former seminarians said.
"There was no open discussion about sexuality," said Bryan Cones, a 28-year-old former seminarian who is gay. "The people who are there, whether straight or gay, have a lot of issues that aren't getting resolved."
For Cones, so much silence only intensified his internal struggle. "It was a very frightening thing," he said. "I was very upset. I spent several years praying not to be gay."
Today, most seminaries conduct psychological surveys of new students, but that does not necessarily mean they will be asked their sexual orientation.
Mandatory psychological testing began at Mundelein Seminary around 1978, according to Rev. John Canary, the rector. Including up to 12 hours of written and in-person evaluations, the tests address issues of sexuality but do not specifically ask about orientation, he said. Psychologists may bring up sexual orientation during interviews, but are not required to.