U.S. Catholic bishops will sidestep the issue of whether homosexual men should become priests at their semiannual meeting, which begins tomorrow, despite the Vatican's concern about the role of homosexuals in the church's massive sex-abuse scandal.
In the latest edition of an 84-page document on priestly training, only one sentence deals with homosexuality.
"With regard to the admission of candidates with same-sex experiences and/or inclinations, the guidelines provided by the Holy See must be followed," says the document "Program of Priestly Formation."
The program is expected to be approved by the bishops in their Chicago meetings, scheduled to end Saturday. It then would be forwarded to Rome for final approval.
However, the Vatican, which is said to be preparing to crack down on homosexuality in seminaries, has never issued official guidelines, canon laws or papal pronouncements on whether Catholic seminaries should remain open to homosexual men. Only a Feb. 2, 1961, Vatican directive to canon law speaks directly to the matter.
"Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty," reads the directive, which is advisory rather than a binding law.
But the "guidelines" mentioned in the document, now in its fifth edition, refer to rules that might be set forth by the Vatican, said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
"I know that sounds a little vague," he added.
A USCCB investigation revealed in 2004 that 81 percent of 10,667 priestly sexual-abuse cases involved boys, with the largest share of those victims being 11 or older. Estimates of the percentage of men studying for the priesthood who have homosexual attractions range from 25 percent to more than 50 percent.
"There are persons in the Vatican who have decided we should exclude homosexual men from seminaries in the United States," said Catholic University professor Dean Hoge, an adviser to the document.
"But the idea of excluding men with a homosexual orientation is impossible. If you ask a man and he refuses to answer, what are you going to do? The general feeling is that if a man is chaste, celibate, responsible and relates well, we don't care if he has a same-sex attraction or not. That's my view," he said.
Not all heterosexual priests are chaste either, he added, "but nobody talks about that.
"Are there homosexual men in the priesthood? Absolutely. Are they good priests? Absolutely. Enforcing this is like enforcing the Rio Grande ... as a border between the United States and Mexico. You can't build a wall high enough," Mr. Hoge said.
Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) at the Vatican, said in an April interview that "the formation of men in celibate chastity is one of the concerns" the Vatican has about the American seminaries.
The CCE oversees the world's 2,300 Catholic seminaries, 213 of which are in the United States.
An "apostolic visit" from Vatican officials to American seminaries this fall "will figure out the criteria of various seminaries on homosexuality," he added. Announced in April 2002, the visit is supposed to address complaints that homosexual men are enrolling in large numbers.
The 2004 USCCB investigation, also known as the John Jay study, called for "a more searching inquiry" of homosexual seminarians "to help them with the challenge of priestly celibacy."
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is an "intrinsically disordered" condition and, in October, released a document reiterating that such behavior "is not consistent with moral law."
Last July, Bishop John D'Arcy, from the Fort Wayne-South Bend dioceses, told a Boston parish that only heterosexuals should be ordained. To place a homosexual in a typical parish rectory where he could be attracted to other men is unfair, he said.
"We don't put these [heterosexual] men in with attractive women," he told the Boston Globe. "You're putting him in with men. It's not fair to him, it's not fair to them, it's not fair to the church."
The Associated Press on June 10 said U.S. dioceses have spent at least $1.06 billion over five decades on sex abuse-related costs. There are still hundreds of claims pending.