THE PATRIARCH of what may be the world's largest dysfunctional family will visit some of his children in Denver this week. And like many modern-day families, Pope John Paul II and his American-Catholic progeny will find themselves in different worlds when it comes to talking about sex.

I got a good taste of the church's attitude toward sexuality when I entered a Jesuit seminary in 1959. I kind of knew that there weren't going to be any girls around, but I had no idea how obsessed with sex the place would be. The closed seminary world revolved around two contradictory presumptions. On the one hand, we were to check our sexuality at the door and live "like the angels," as St. Ignatius, the Jesuits' founder, said. At the same time, we were presumed to be so lascivious we would jump any male or female who came within arm's-length.

To resolve that conflict, we were given Latin mantras like noli tangere (do not touch) and numquam duo (never two alone). We were told to guard against "particular friendships," emotional attachments to any one person. When we went to the beach on seminary property, we had to change in private dressing quarters. Though never discussed, it was obvious that fear and confusion about homosexuality permeated the place.

But heterosexuality got equal time. Aloysius Gonzaga, the Jesuit boy saint who would leave a room whenever a woman -- even his mother -- entered, was held up as an ideal. When families visited, mothers and sisters were sequestered in visiting rooms while fathers and brothers could enter the "cloister."

Thirty years and a social revolution later, the church is still stuck in the pelvic zone. Indeed, the fear of sexuality and suspicion of women that permeated my seminary in upstate New York 30 years ago remains at the heart of most of the problems that have the Catholic Church reeling as the pope prepares his visit.

Worldwide since 1969, more than 100,000 men have left the priesthood. Of some 71,000 men now living in this country who were ever ordained as Catholic priests, 20,000 are now married and thus forbidden to administer the sacraments. Ten percent of U.S. parishes have no resident pastor; worldwide, the figure is 43 percent. The median age of American priests is 58 and rising. In 1965 there were 48,000 seminarians in this country; as of two months ago there were 5,891.

Not only the quantity but the quality of the priesthood is of concern. The Rev. Anthony Padovano, director of Corpus, an organization lobbying for married priests, says, "Bishops will tell you privately that they are horribly concerned about the moral and intellectual quality of many of those now entering seminaries."

"The priest shortage is having an enormous effect on morale," says the Rev. Frank McNulty, a New Jersey parish priest who was chosen by fellow priests to address the pope when he visited Miami in 1987. "So many dedicated priests are dragging; some of them have to cover several parishes, driving hundreds of miles like circuit riders. They resent the fact that no one seems willing to address any possible solutions."

The church's attitude toward sexuality has also created an enormous credibility problem. Nine out of 10 American Catholics disagree with church teaching that contraception is "intrinsically disordered," as Paul VI stated in his 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical; 67 percent support ordaining women; 75 percent want celibacy to be an option for priests.

As if to demonstrate just how out of touch the church's leadership is, Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, the host for the pope's visit, recently offered the view that saying mass is so all-consuming that it precludes having sex -- and vice versa. "Whether it be to the wife in the consummation of marriage, or to the church in the offering of one sacrifice, the masculine nuptial self-donation or sacrifice is exclusive and permanent," said Stafford.

Such theories as Stafford's aside, the fact is that celibacy is just not working for the church or its priests. "I could name on one hand the number of priests I have known who were really empowered by their celibacy," says psychologist Donald Hands, a former Jesuit who now counsels priests and nuns. "Celibacy requires a very high degree of psychological maturity. It turned most of the priests I saw into nothing more than lazy bachelors."psychological maturity. It turned most of the priests I saw into nothing more than lazy bachelors."

Hands, now a married Anglican priest, remembers that when he taught at a Jesuit high school in New York, a nightly cocktail hour was followed by beer and wine at dinner. "Then a lot of priests would stumble up to the big TV room, plop down and sit 'til 11 watching TV together. It was more like a motel than a religious community."

Psychoanalyst John Muller, who spent 10 years in the Jesuits, says that many of his friends left the seminary because they saw "so many older priests who were alcoholics; drinking was their way of handling loneliness and feelings of resentment and frustration . . . . They couldn't make celibacy work as it was intended -- to liberate and focus to help others." Aside from how much celibacy empowers or liberates is the question of how much it is adhered to. Kathy Grenier, who has counseled over 1,200 women who claim to have had affairs with priests, says that active sexuality among priests is accepted by the church as long as it is kept quiet. "These guys leave a woman at 6 in the morning and rush off to say mass. It's abusive because they are using their power as priests to get women," says Grenier. "A woman who goes to a priest after loss of a child or divorce is feeling unlovable; Father shuts off the lights and creates a dating atmosphere."

A support group in Alexandria called "Promises" has a more sanguine view of sacerdotal sex. "We are a group for women who are having healthy dating relationships with priests . . . . Priests are much healthier when they are in an intimate relationship . . . . Their preaching becomes better," says the head of Promises, who does not want her name used.

Baltimore psychotherapist Richard Sipe, who was a Benedictine monk for 15 years, sees anything but health in these relationships. "About 20 percent of priests are involved in a more or less stable sexual relationship with one woman or, alternatively, with a series of women . . . . They have given up celibacy but are getting the privileges of the celibate culture -- the adulation and security that comes to a celibate man," says Sipe. "As long as you are not caught, the thinking goes, God will understand because you are human. It's considered a greater betrayal to leave the priesthood than to have secret liaisons."

Sipe, author of "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy," based on a 25-year study of some 1,500 priests and their sexual partners, says dozens of priests he interviewed were told by their bishops that "if they had a problem with celibacy they should take a woman as a housekeeper or a mistress . . . . Superiors regularly ignore the deeper personal relationship of the sexual involvement, the emotional implications of the priest's behavior."

Many Catholic women see the celibacy doctrine as just another manifestation of the church's disdain for women. "By insisting on celibacy for priests they are confirming that women are not worth anything," says Barbara Ferraro, who directs programs for the homeless and people with AIDS at Covenant House in Charleston, W.Va. "Allowing priests to marry would mean recognizing the sacredness and beauty of women's sexuality, instead of seeing them as merely instruments to procreate."

The Rev. David Toolan, an editor of the Jesuit magazine America, thinks that the church's mistake was to make celibacy mandatory. "It should have been made clear that celibacy is a charism or grace and not an absolute law or precondition," says Toolan, who finds it "infuriating that debate on celibacy and women's ordination is seen as closed by the hierarchy. Any priest who even brings the topic up can be sure that he will never be appointed a bishop."

While optional celibacy might create some organizational and financial problems for the church, says Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University, it would not only end the priest shortage but also raise standards for entry and cut down on alcoholism and child abuse. Advocates of optional celibacy also point to the church's hypocrisy in allowing married Episcopalian ministers to cross over and become ordained Catholic priests.

This group and their wives are welcomed with open arms, says Vincent Keane, a priest resigned from active ministry who now directs a health care project for the homeless in the District. That's because, says Keane, they are mainly "conservatives angered by the liberalism of the Episcopalians, especially the ordination of women." Two best-selling Jesuit authors found out the lengths to which the church will go to stifle discussion of these issues. Terrance Sweeney was forced to leave the Jesuits when he refused a Vatican order to destroy his research on attitudes of bishops and cardinals toward ordaining women and optional celibacy. A year after Jesuit John McNeil published his book "The Church and the Homosexual," the Vatican forbade him to write or say anything publicly on the matter. He stayed silent for nine years but, after 40 years of service, was then expelled for attacking the 1986 statement by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that homosexuality was "an intrinsic disorder and orientation to evil."

This stifling of discussion and obsession with avoiding scandal has ironically caused the biggest public relations problems the church in America has ever experienced: the current charges of covering up pedophilia among its priests.

"Pedophilia is a power issue. The real scandal is the cover-up by the church," says Padovano. "When you have an all-male celibate priesthood there is a sense of clubbiness . . . . If you marry a woman, they are unrelenting in getting rid of you; they have a more benign attitude to pedophiles. Cardinal O'Connor sent two priests to court to support a pedophile in a recent case."

(The Goshen, N.Y., case Padavano refers to is that of the Rev. Edward Pipala, who, as the New York Times reported last month, admitted to creating a parish boys' club called "The Hole" in which he would provide alcohol to boys as young as 12 and engage them in various sexual acts. "The Cardinal asked me to be here to give support to the Father, to give him a personal affirmation . . . ," said one of O'Connor's representatives at the trial.)

In arguing for recycling some pedophile priests, the Rev. Canice Connors, director of St. Luke Institute for troubled priests in Suitland, has written, "Offenders with few incidents and all involved with post-pubescent youths and whose offenses have not been widely publicized . . . may be reconsidered for reassignment to any ministry which allows proper supervision and involves no responsibility for youth ministries." In a magazine article, O'Connor wrote, "As we speak to and about the victims we must be aware that the child sometimes retains a loving memory of the offender . . . ."

In January, when four Prince George's deputy sheriffs, armed with a warrant from New Mexico, went to arrest the Rev. David Holley, St. Luke officials denied that Holley was on the grounds. When the sheriff surrounded the place with 20 deputies and threatened to call the local news media and CNN, Holley was given over. He is now in a New Mexico prison serving 275 years for sex abuse.

A book on pastoral counseling used in several seminaries says, "Nothing happens to the child {who has encountered a homosexual seduction} if the parents keep their heads and do not behave as if some catastrophe has taken place . . . ."

"All the Monsignor in charge was concerned about was the publicity . . . . {He said}, 'Let's keep it quiet; let's keep it normal,' " says the mother of a boy abused by the Rev. Thomas Chleboski, parish priest at a local church. Although the priest was subsequently sentenced to 22 years, the mother says that "the church has shown no concern for my son. Chleboski got to him three times on the parish grounds after he had been reported. Now that I am suing the diocese, I am being branded a money grubber."

Sipe sees a connection between celibacy and the church's reluctance to purge pedophiles. "When you glorify celibacy rather than enlightenment through fatherhood, children don't count for very much. That's why the bishops and priests have no sense of the victims of pedophiles today -- they are not fathers," says Sipe.

The rash of pedophile cases has created even less public tolerance for homosexuals in the church, although, as John McNeil points out, "most pedophiles are heterosexual. Pedophilia has a different psychological base than homosexuality."

There are no hard data on the percentage of gays in the priesthood, says Catholic University's Hoge, "but two studies that survey those who should know {i.e., priests nationwide} make estimates; in seminaries now the percentage is higher than in the active priesthood. In many dioceses estimates are as high as 50 percent. It's too hot to handle as a scientifically researchable topic."

Gays, notes McNeil, have provided considerable talent to the church. "There is some truth to the fact that there was no place for gay men to go until recently. Either you got married or entered the clergy to have a cover for the fact that you were not heterosexual," says McNeil, adding that many of the best priests he knows are gay. But some of the gay priests are not so committed. It took a special effort on the part of authorities at a Maryland seminary to keep in check the gay camp culture that, in ecclesiastical circles, earned it the name "Pink Palace."

Anachronistic attitudes are also costing the church a vast pool of female talent. "If Catholics want to know where the seminarians are, the answer is that many are in Protestant seminaries. One third of the men and women in my seminary class were former Roman Catholics," says Rosemarie Sullivan, a former cloistered Catholic nun who is now pastor of St. Clement's Episcopal church in Alexandria.

Donna Quinn, a Dominican nun who heads the group Chicago Catholic Women, has chosen to stay and fight within the system. "This is my church; I don't want it represented by old men in Rome who have an anti-women mentality," says Quinn, who escorted black children who were being cursed and spat upon when Chicago suburban schools were integrated. She is calling for an international boycott of the mass until women are ordained.

"The pope and bishops are not the real church; they are a remnant of Western monarchy that came in when the Emperor Constantine became a Catholic in the 4th century," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "The church is the people of God who come together with a sense of the transcendental and some hope that there is meaning to their lives.

Still, says Kissling, "you have to have sympathy for these guys {the pope and bishops}. When it comes to looking at themselves they have the same blindspots the rest of us do. They can speak beautifully for democracy in Latin America or call us to some justice about the distribution of resources, but they cannot see the injustice of their own behavior. It is our job to point out what they don't see about themselves, just as it is theirs to point out things to us. They are not very good listeners, but it doesn't mean we should stop talking."

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.