The Catholic church is suffering a massive priest shortage, and conservatives want to make it worse by hunting down clerical sinners so they can be purged.

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The Catholic church is shrinking, and a group of conservative Catholics wants it to hurry up and shrink faster.

As reported in the Washington Post, a right-wing group called Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal purchased tracking data about the users of gay dating and hookup apps like Grindr. This data is meant to be used for ad targeting. Theoretically, it’s anonymous. In practice, it contains enough detail about users—such as their exact GPS locations (!)—that it’s often possible to identify individuals.

By cross-referencing location data with the addresses of seminaries and other church properties, this group sought to hunt down Catholic priests who were secretly dating or meeting men for sex. And they caught at least one.

It appears that they’re responsible for the 2021 outing of Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At the time, it wasn’t clear how Burrill had been found out. Now we know.

Before passing on to the other implications of this story, let’s pause to reflect on the horrifying privacy implications of making this data available for anyone to buy. Grindr and other hookup apps say they no longer sell users’ exact locations, but that doesn’t explain the lapse in judgment of making it available for sale in the first place.

Clearly, their lust for profit overrode the extremely obvious concern about the safety of their users. There’s no excuse for not foreseeing how this could be abused. It’s not just embarrassment that’s at stake—selling this kind of data endangers people’s actual lives.

Hunting the fifth column

The stated purpose of CLCR is to police the clergy for scandalous behavior. However, according to the Post’s reporting, they were always focused on gay dating apps. They never made any serious effort to track down priests in heterosexual relationships:

According to two separate reports prepared for bishops and reviewed by The Post, the group says it obtained data that spans 2018 through 2021 for multiple dating and hookup apps including Grindr, Scruff, Growlr and Jack’d, all used by gay men, as well as OkCupid, a major site for people of various sexualities. But most of the data appears to be from Grindr, and those familiar with the project said the organizers’ focus was gay priests.

As my friend Mary Johnson writes in An Unquenchable Thirst, illicit sexual relationships are rampant among the clergy—both heterosexual and homosexual. If CLCR’s concern was only to catch priests who are violating their vow of celibacy, they’d treat all dating apps alike. They didn’t. (They’re also not nearly as outraged over priests who father children, let alone priests who are abusive predators.)

The laserlike focus on gay priests implies that this isn’t a crusade for morality in general. It’s a culture-war mission founded in the belief that gay people are a fifth column inside the church that has to be rooted out. It’s the same mindset as the medieval inquisitors who suspected that Jews who’d converted to Christianity were still practicing their old religion in secret.

If they achieve this goal, it will boomerang on them. Consider: out of all Catholic believers, who’s most likely to want to be a priest? What sort of person finds a life of celibacy an appealing prospect?

There’s an obvious answer: gay Catholic men. For people conditioned by church dogma to believe they’ll be damned forever if they seek love, joining the clergy is a logical response. It makes the best of a bad situation. (But, in practice, temptation proves difficult to resist, which is why so many of them are secretly dating or hooking up.)

Although it’s difficult to study, since most gay clergy are deeply closeted, there’s evidence to back up this reasoning. Sociological studies estimate that 30% to 40% of Catholic priests are gay men. By some estimates, the number is even higher. One out-of-the-closet gay priest joked, “30 percent are gay, 30 percent are straight, and 30 percent are in denial.”

What would be left of the church if all gay priests were chased out?

The shortfall

The Catholic church has been suffering from a shortfall of priests for years (here’s a column I wrote about it going back to 2011). And the problem has only gotten worse.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown maintains stats on U.S. priests and parishes through the decades. The numbers aren’t encouraging for the church. From 59,000 priests in 1965, it’s down to 34,000 today, even as the overall population has almost doubled. And most of those who remain are elderly. The average age of a priest is 67 years old. In a decade or two, many of them won’t be around.

Globally, there are over 3,000 Catholics for every one priest, and that’s an average. In some areas of the world, the discrepancy is as large as one per 10,000. Even Pope Francis has lamented this “crisis of vocations“.

The church has no idea how to plug this hole. They’ve been importing priests from the few countries that still have a surplus, as well as consolidating parishes into Catholic megachurches where three full-time priests serve up to a million people. In some places, like Buffalo, up to six parishes share a single priest. Even so, these tactics are only delaying the inevitable.

Ironically, as this brutal article from America magazine points out, the only reason the priest shortage isn’t worse is because so many Catholics are quitting the church that parishes are also shrinking and closing:

Almost 20 percent of U.S. parishes (or 3,363 out of 17,007) do not have a resident pastor, according to the latest data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; about 10 percent of those are entrusted to a deacon, woman religious or layperson. The 341 parishes in the latter situation… are considerably fewer than the more than 500 in 2005, but one reason for the decline is that U.S. dioceses have shuttered hundreds of churches since then (1,884 of them at last count). The overall reduction in parishes has so far prevented the long, if slowing, decline in the number of active diocesan priests in the United States from causing an explosion in “pastorless parishes.”

Parishes without pastors decline, but only because more churches have closed.” Robert David Sullivan, America, 14 June 2019.

Religious sisters (“nuns”) are in even worse shape. In the U.S., their numbers have fallen from 178,000 in 1965 to barely 36,000 today. And they’re aging and graying even faster than priests. A 2016 study found that their average age is 80 years old. Fewer than 1% are under 40. Catholic nuns are facing a real threat of extinction.

Bleeding the patient white

On top of this preexisting problem, right-wing vigilantes like CLRC are hunting gay priests down. They want to “purify” the church. And they’ll succeed—in the same way, and with the same result, as ancient doctors who thought sick people needed to be bled for their own good.

Because of them, some men will be chased out of the priesthood. Others will choose not to join in the first place. Either way, it will accelerate a decline that was already so steep it threatens the church’s survival as an institution.

This is the death knell for tolerance in Catholicism. It’s proof that LGBTQ people will never be welcome. And that’s an outcome that the right-wingers would be happy with. They’d rather have a tiny, enfeebled remnant of a church than a large and thriving one, as long as they get to be in charge of it.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...