With Pope Benedict XVI reportedly on the verge of decreeing that homosexuals may not enroll in Catholic seminaries, Catholics and scholars of Catholicism are deeply divided on whether men who are gay should be able to serve as priests.
Supporters of banning gays from seminaries say the step is needed because priests who are gay or accepting of gay lifestyles are unsuited to teach church doctrine that specifies lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only proper context for sexual activity.
Critics of the effort say it is an ill-conceived reaction to the child sexual-abuse scandal that in recent years has rocked the Catholic clergy, particularly in New England.
Church officials and clergy declined to comment on The New York Times report last week that the pope will soon issue a ban on gay men becoming priests, but some were willing to discuss the subject of gays' suitability for the priesthood.
''If a person has been sexually active or is espousing a homosexual lifestyle as acceptable, that person is not suitable to be a priest," said Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, because such ideas ''are opposed to what the Catholic Church teaches about sexual activity being confined to a lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage.
''It is a human characteristic to try to justify whatever one thinks is an acceptable lifestyle," Maniscalco said, asserting that doing so could create difficulties for gay priests, both in personal conduct and in the ways they convey church teaching to parishioners.
''There is a Catholic culture, and it is not the same culture espoused by some others in our society," he said. ''Some of the elements of these cultures are not compatible. Some think a certain degree of homosexual activity might be compatible with celibacy. It is not. . . . If someone has been active" sexually outside marriage ''or is espousing a homosexual lifestyle as acceptable, that is opposed to what the Catholic Church teaches."
Some Boston-area Catholics interviewed Thursday outside St. Anthony Shrine downtown shared Maniscalco's orthodox views.
Mary Petrowsky, 74, said she has gay friends, has been invited to their weddings, and knows a nun who is a lesbian. But she said the Vatican has the right to the final say and that she would stand by whatever the pope decides.
''That's the decision that the church has made," said Petrowsky, of Winthrop, stopping to light candles for victims of Hurricane Katrina and possible victims of Hurricane Rita. ''If that's how they feel, I won't go against them. I believe in what the church says."
Stephen DiStefano, 45, of Boston, said that ''everyone is born differently" and that gays do not choose their lifestyle. But he said he does not think they should serve as priests.
''I don't think they belong in the priesthood," he said on the sidewalk in front of the shrine. ''Christ and the apostles set a very good example, so they have to follow their rules."
Others flatly disagreed that gays should be excluded from the priesthood.
As he walked inside to hear confessions, the Rev. Reginald Redlon, a retired priest who served as rector of a New Hampshire seminary for 10 years, said he is against the proposed papal ban.
''I don't think that gays who are celibate, prayerful, and disciplined should be barred from the seminary," Redlon, 85, said. ''They are very often very zealous priests. Everybody has to integrate sexuality into their personal lives, and to discriminate against homosexuals is a mistake."
Other Catholics said that the world has changed to become more accepting of homosexuality and that the church might need to change with it.
Stopping into the shrine on their lunch break, Marlene Fernandes of Weymouth and Martha Alzate of Winthrop said the church should be open to all of the faithful.
''I believe everybody should be treated equally," Alzate, 38, said. ''Just because their sexuality is different doesn't mean they should be treated differently. I'm Catholic, and I want to be respected; same with them. If you want to be respected, you should treat them with respect."
Fernandes, 24, acknowledged that the church views homosexuality as a sin.
Gay priests would have no choice but to abide by church doctrine and would have to ''personally find a way" to live with Catholicism's stance on homosexuality, she said.
''They would be aware that they're teaching that in church," Fernandes said. ''If you're going to be a priest, you're going to have to preach" according to the church, she said.
The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said that he recognized the church's right to say ''this is what we're looking for" in candidates for the priesthood and to decide not to accept gay men, but he opposed any blanket ban on homosexuals.
For the good of all, including the church itself, he said, the church needs to deal forthrightly with the changes in social attitudes that have occurred since the 1960s.
''Any human being, any man who is honest and upright and called by God can be an appropriate candidate for the priesthood," Silva said.
''I know men who came through the seminaries in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s who never had any genital experience at all, and as they matured began to understand this part of themselves. Now, in their 50s and 60s they are saying: 'I never had a name for this before. I am a homosexual man. I am also a committed, celibate priest.' "
Silva agreed with Maniscalco that sexual acts that contradict church teaching might make a man unsuitable for the priesthood, but, he said, ''we have to differentiate between behavior and self-understanding."