May 10, 2002

CHICAGO--For the last 20 of his 45-plus years, the dark-haired man at the altar has baptized babies, buried grandparents, married young men and women.

The fact that he is also gay had never been much of an issue, until now. "I've never felt personally discriminated against," he said. "But right now there's a lot of homophobia and hysteria going around."

Serving God and the community was what pushed this Roman Catholic priest into his white collar, he said. "The first time I thought about being a priest I was in grade school," he said. He didn't begin to understand that he was gay until his second year of seminary. The priest, who said he has held to his pledge of celibacy and done nothing wrong, also said he is afraid to have his name or picture made public.

In the midst of the Catholic Church's widening sex abuse scandal, the relative abundance of gay men in the priesthood - a fact that for years was mostly ignored - has suddenly set off a divisive debate among American Catholics.

Some liberal priests and parishioners are furious, saying church leaders have begun raising questions about gay priests instead of addressing the church's real and very separate problems: sexual abusers of any orientation and the practice of reassigning abusive priests from parish to parish.

Some conservatives are angry too, but for different reasons. They say homosexuality in the clergy is a concern that has long deserved more scrutiny, and that church leaders still are failing to fully deal with it.

Somewhere between the right and left edges of this debate, the issue has opened up for many Catholics questions of theology, sociology and sexuality - questions with layered sides, but no easy answers. Does the sexual orientation of priests have any place in discussions of the abuse scandal? Beyond the scandal, what draws gay men to the priesthood? And, perhaps most of all, does a priest's sexual orientation matter?

Church leaders themselves touched off this debate, as the church's priest sex abuse scandal swirled. Bishop Wilton Gregory, leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, last month described the church's "ongoing struggle" to ensure that the Catholic priesthood "is not dominated by homosexual men." A papal spokesman said that people with "these inclinations just cannot be ordained."

The Rev. Stan Sloan, a former Roman Catholic priest, said the "real shame" is the notion that homosexuality in the priesthood be raised in the context of the molestation scandal. "There's a difference between being gay and being ill" by abusing children, said Sloan, who is gay and now an Episcopal priest. "Nobody is making that distinction."

But Stephen Brady, of Roman Catholic Faithful, said church leaders need to confront homosexuality. "Anyone entering the priesthood now should be told point-blank if you are homosexual we do not want you in the priesthood," said Brady, of the orthodox Catholic group based near Springfield, Ill. "We have so many gays in the seminaries because we have so many gays controlling the seminaries and the chancery offices."

For all the areas of discord, most people agree on this: The priesthood draws a relatively large percentage of gay men.

The numbers are imprecise and a matter for disagreement over methodology, but the Rev. Donald Cozzens, an author and priest, has reported on about five studies that suggest gay men make up between 30 and 50 percent of the priesthood.

That's significantly higher than most estimates of gay people in the overall population -which range up to about 10 percent.

Whatever their sexual orientations, priests pledge lives of celibacy. That, the liberal side says, should deem a priest's orientation irrelevant. Sex disorder experts say there is no evidence of a link between being gay and molesting minors.

But church teachings also deem gay sex wrong and some conservatives point to the church's sexual abuse scandal, which has revealed abuse of numerous boys and young men, as at least tangentially connected to the number of gay priests. Beyond the priesthood, Roman Catholic leaders have navigated a difficult course on the subject of homosexuality.

Church teachings denounce homosexuality as an "objective disorder" and gay sex as sinful, as are any sex acts that don't lead to procreation, including masturbation. In 1986, the Vatican issued a letter saying that "the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin," but that all homosexual acts were immoral.

At the same time, the church began reaching out to gay parishioners.

No one is sure when the ratio of gay men became so high in the priesthood. Some priests say it always was, but that few people discussed it until after the 1960s, when sexuality became 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.