In the first five months of Pope Benedict XVI's reign, stern opposition to homosexuality in and outside the Roman Catholic Church has quickly become a prime public message for the Vatican.
The new pontiff plans to issue guidelines designed to inhibit gay men from entering seminaries to train for the priesthood. Church inspectors have embarked on a tour of U.S. seminaries and, according to their working papers, are tasked to ask: "Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary? (This question must be answered.)"
Benedict has also energetically fought legal recognition of homosexual couples.
For the church and for Benedict, taking a public stance on homosexuality is not unusual. Church observers have noted that for the quarter-century before he became pope, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, served as the Vatican's chief enforcer of orthodoxy, drafting official positions regarding homosexuality.
"No doctrinal chief has ever written and spoken about homosexuality as extensively as Ratzinger has, because homosexuals have never had the freedom to organize and demand recognition they enjoy today," wrote John L. Allen Jr. in a biography of Benedict published before he became pope.
His papacy's early focus on homosexuality is a reaction to outside events, some analysts have said: the extension of so-called civil unions or marriage rights to same-sex couples and the disclosure of sexual abuse by priests. Vatican officials have largely blamed such abuse on homosexuality.
"Given that the church is in the world, action in political life to increase public recognition of homosexual relations is bound to mean more church activity in response," said Robert A. Gahl, a theologian based in Rome. "Such liberalizing trends in the outside world have also intruded in the seminary, and the church must respond as well."
Critics, on the other hand, have said the pope is simply preoccupied with sex. "It's an obsession," said Alessio de Giorgi, who founded an Italian gay Web site and supports legal recognition of same-sex couples.
New rules to inhibit the participation of gay men in the priesthood have been in the works for several years. The rules may endorse psychological testing for aspiring seminarians, and also include assurances that gay men who have already become priests will not be made targets of a witch hunt, Vatican officials have said.
On Friday, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported that the new rules will permit gay men to enter the priesthood so long as they have been celibate for three years and don't keep in touch with homosexual society via the Internet or movies. One Vatican official confirmed the gist of the article but added that the document would also insist that aspiring priests not participate in gay solidarity events such as parades and seminars that treat homosexuality in a "positive way."
"No matter how the document comes out, it will still be a judgment call" for church officials who select seminarians, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As early as 1961, the Vatican told church officials that "advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers."
In 2002, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, repeated the ban: "Ordination to the deaconate and the priesthood of homosexual men or men with homosexual tendencies is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent, and from the pastoral point of view, very risky."
And what about gay men who practice celibacy, as is also required of a heterosexual priest or seminarian? Some priests and bishops argue it would be a distortion to put abstinence from something the church regards as sinful -- homosexual acts -- on a par with something it regards as noble, sex in married life.
In any event, the issue remains one of prudence, a Vatican official argued. Life in a seminary among men, and a ministry that may put a priest in intimate contact with men and boys, is too risky for homosexuals, he contended.
"It is not enough that a person is called to the priesthood," the official said. "The church must also call him."
Some bishops note that the church already prohibits gay men from entering the priesthood and suggest that a restatement will only make the church look intolerant, Vatican officials say. In the wake of sex abuse scandals, bishops and heads of seminaries are already sufficiently vigilant, opponents of fresh rules have said.
Concerning same-sex couples, Benedict and a host of close aides have recently opposed moves to grant them legal status in Italy. The Vatican voiced its opposition when Romano Prodi, a candidate for prime minister in upcoming Italian parliamentary elections, pledged that if brought to office, his government would support so-called solidarity pacts, both for unmarried heterosexual couples and same-sex couples.
The pacts would grant rights of inheritance, pensions and other social privileges that are accorded to married couples. Fourteen European countries already extend some sort of legal recognition to homosexual couples, ranging from simple registration to adoption rights.
In a speech on Sept. 20, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a close collaborator of Benedict who heads the Italian Bishops' Conference, attacked proposals for "little marriages, something for which there is no real need and which would, on the contrary, eclipse the nature and value of a family." He did not mention homosexuality directly, but attacked the French model, which offers same-sex couples the same rights as man-woman partnerships.
Ruini's stand made him the target of pro-pact activists. Last month, a group of protesting students jeered him at a ceremony in Siena where he was receiving an award. "Free love in a free state!" the young people shouted. "We are all homosexuals."
On the same day, Benedict himself spoke up: "The inalienable value of matrimony and the family cannot be equated or jumbled up with other forms of human unions," he said at Castel Gandolfo, a papal retreat near Rome.
Two years ago, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict attacked homosexual unions as a misrepresentation of marriage. In a document titled "Considerations on Projects of Legal Recognition of Unions between Homosexual Persons," he wrote that "within homosexual unions, the biological and anthropological elements of matrimony and the family, on which foundations for legal recognition of such unions could be reasonably laid, are totally absent."
The document stated that among the missing elements are a "conjugal dimension" for "transmission of life."
Vatican officials have called on civil servants in Spain to refuse to provide services that homosexual couples are entitled to under new laws recognizing their relationships.
On questions of homosexuality generally, the words of Benedict himself are a major Catholic reference point. In 1975, he issued the "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics," which distinguished between homosexuality that "is transitory" and homosexuality resulting from "some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable."
The declaration went on to appeal for empathy: "Homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties."
In 1986, Ratzinger expanded on his call for compassion. "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs," he wrote in "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons."
But he also denounced homosexuality as both a proclivity and a practice: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."
"The use of the sexual faculty can be morally good" only in a marital relation framed by procreation, he added. "A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally."