SAME-SEX MARRIAGE LAWS AND COMING OUT IN AMERICA: Evidence from the Catholic priesthood

12 Apr 2021

Enrolment in priestly studies in Catholic seminaries fell by about 15% in US states that adopted same-sex marriage laws compared with non-adopting states, according to new research by Avner Seror and Rohit Ticku. They conclude that this exodus from the training of Catholic priests is strong evidence that gay men are coming out more after the passing of same-sex marriage laws. Previously, the celibacy requirement of joining the priesthood would have been a way to avoid a heterosexual lifestyle and the stigma associated with expressing a gay identity.

What’s more, the researchers argue, their result cannot be interpreted as being driven by steady secularisation that might have coincided with the passing of the same-sex marriage laws. The same-sex marriage laws have not affected enrolment of deacon or lay minister students, who are trained to perform key pastoral duties but are not bound to lifelong celibacy.

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Sexual identities are evolving rapidly in the United States. In 2020, only 2% of ‘baby boomers’ identified themselves as LGBT compared with 9% of ‘millennials’. Even more striking, one in six adult members of ‘Generation Z’ now self-identify as LGBT.

The reasons underlying these changes are not well understood, due to the constraints in tracking the expression of sexual identities. To begin with, information on sexual identities is seldom included in survey data. Even when the information is collected, the reporting of sexual identity is typically subject to self-censorship, so the available data remain imprecise.

This research argues that the adoption of the same-sex marriage laws in the United States have been instrumental in the recent evolution of sexual identities. The authors hypothesise that the institutional legitimisation of same-sex relationships, through the passing of same-sex marriage laws, has encouraged coming out in America.

The study proposes a methodology to overcome the previous data challenges, in order to study the link between the same-sex marriage laws and coming out in America. The authors inferred sexual orientations through key decisions that people make. Although it might seem odd at first, they examined trends in the enrolment in Catholic seminaries, following the passing of the same-sex marriage laws in the United States. From 2004 onwards, 35 states implemented the same-sex marriage laws until the US Supreme Court intervention in 2015.

The rationale is simple. Catholic priests make a vow of celibacy. Hence, as both historical and contemporary debates within the Catholic Church imply, gay men may join the ranks of the Catholic priesthood as a way to avoid a heterosexual lifestyle and the stigma associated with expressing a gay identity.

Noted theologian, Reverend Richard P. McBrien (1987) described this self-selection in Catholic priesthood: ‘... in a society where homosexuality continues to be stigmatized, the celibate priesthood can offer an esteemed and rewarding profession in which ‘unmarried and uninterested’ status is self-explanatory and excites neither curiosity nor suspicion.’

By observing how the enrolment in Catholic seminaries responded to the same-sex marriage laws, it is possible to quantify the evolution of coming out decisions.

The researchers find that in the United States, following the passing of same-sex marriage laws, enrolment in priestly studies in Catholic seminaries fell by about 15% in states that adopted same-sex marriage laws compared with non-adopting states. This exodus from the training of Catholic priests gives strong evidence that gay men are coming out more after the passing of same-sex marriage laws.

Importantly, the researchers also find that the same-sex marriage laws have no effect on enrolment of students in Catholic vocations that do not mandate celibacy. They find that the same-sex marriage laws do not affect the enrolment of Deacon or Lay minister students, who are trained to perform key pastoral duties but are not bound to lifelong celibacy.

Hence, the result cannot be interpreted as being driven by a steady secularisation within the United States that might have coincided with the passing of the same-sex marriage laws. It can rather be interpreted as driven by the celibacy requirement of Catholic priesthood, which creates an incentive for gay men to join seminaries.

While the study of sexual identities remains constrained by data limitations, this research shows that gay men have been coming out more after the passing of the same-sex marriage laws. More careful analysis is required to deepen our understanding of the recent evolution of sexual identities.

Avner Seror

Assistant Professor | Aix Marseille School of Economics

Rohit Ticku

Postdoctoral Fellow | Chapman University