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."
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.
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."
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 the 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.
If a candidate says he is gay, that does not exclude him from entering the seminary, said Canary. But, if a gay candidate acknowledges any history of homosexual activity, he will be asked to leave, he said.
The same rule does not apply to heterosexual candidates, he said. "But we would have to have an assurance of at least several years of chaste living," Canary said.
A handful of theologians and writers have suggested since the 1980s that a "gay subculture" exists within the priesthood, but the idea gained new attention when Cozzens, then president-rector of a Cleveland seminary, devoted a chapter to the topic in his 2000 book, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." Some priests and seminarians were intimidated by the numbers of gay men in the clergy, Cozzens suggested, and that became a factor in their decision to leave the priesthood.
One former priest, who declined to be named, said in an interview that he watched as seminarians who joined certain cliques, including a gay clique, were promoted over heterosexuals.
Ed Dimler, a former seminarian, said about half the students were gay at the St. Louis seminary he attended in the 1980s. Despite the celibacy provision, some of the gay students were known to have sexual relationships with each other, said Dimler, now 36 and married. Dimler said he found the environment awkward for other students who were working to live by the vow of celibacy.
The Rev. Charles Dahlby, a priest at two parishes in southern Illinois, said that the notion of a "gay subculture" is real - and he doesn't like it. "There's a common perception that the priesthood is a homosexual occupation, like hairdressers and interior decorators," said Dahlby, who said he is celibate and heterosexual.
Some gay men choose the priesthood, Dahlby said, because "where else can you go as a homosexual where you have respect you never earned, where no one questions why you're not married and why you're not dating, and where you're surrounded by an incredible number of young men?"
But other former seminarians and priests describe an entirely different, less threatening landscape in the seminaries. They reject the expression "gay subculture." Yes, some gay priests and seminarians are friends, but mostly because they share common issues. The cliques were no different, these seminarians say, than anywhere else in life.
All the talk of a homosexual "subculture" sounds wrongly sordid, said Nancy Smiegowski, who was to become a nun but left before taking her final vows. As with gay priests, friendships sometimes form between lesbians in convents, she said.
"But it's not a sordid subculture or something," said Smiegowski, a 40-year-old lesbian who grew up on the Northwest Side. "Whether it be Catholic nuns or priests, people tend to align ourselves in relationships with people we feel most comfortable with. There's nothing wrong in that. You have to remember, celibacy and a vowed life, whether you're gay or straight, is celibacy and vowed life."