Word that a soon-to-be-released Vatican document will signal homosexuals are unwelcome in Roman Catholic seminaries even if they are celibate has devastated gay clergy - and raised doubts among conservatives about whether an outright ban can be enforced.
A Vatican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the document has not been released, said Thursday that the upcoming ''instruction'' from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education will reaffirm the church's belief that homosexuals should not be ordained.
In recent decades, Vatican officials have stated several times that gays should not become priests because their sexual orientation is ''intrinsically disordered'' and makes them unsuitable for ministry.
The latest document is scheduled to be distributed within weeks, just as an evaluation of all 229 American seminaries gets under way under the direction of the same Vatican agency developing the seminary statement. The review, called an Apostolic Visitation, was ordered by Pope John Paul II in response to the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis which erupted in 2002.
Among the questions the evaluators will ask is whether ''there is evidence of homosexuality in the seminary,'' according to the agency's guide for the inspections.
The Rev. Thomas Krenik, who taught for 10 years in St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and wrote the guidebook Formation for Priestly Celibacy, worries that a blanket ban on gay priest-candidates will re-create the very conditions the Vatican wants to eradicate.
''For some men who happened to be homosexually oriented, they would go further in the closet,'' Krenik said. ''That would be my fear, that this could become an even worse problem.''
A gay American priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from church leaders, said he and other gay clergy and seminarians felt ''absolute horror'' when they heard about the anticipated ban.
Bishop George H. Niederauer, leader of Utah's 200,000 Catholics, has not read the Vatican document and was thus unwilling to comment on its contents.
But Niederauer did emphasize that the idea of giving up sexual activity to serve the church dates back to Jesus.
"Priests freely give up sexual activity of whatever kind," he said Thursday.
Niederauer reiterated his belief that seminaries should welcome any priest candidates who have "the human and spiritual gifts to live a chaste life and a capacity for virtuous living and generous service."
Absent self-reporting, the bishop questions how a seminary determines that a person is homosexual. "What are you going to do? Look and guess?"
The Rev. Peter Rogers, pastor at the Catherine of Siena Newman Center near the University of Utah, also refused to respond to the document's proposals, having not seen it.
Rogers was ordained a priest in 2002 after completing his seminary training at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
"I knew seminarians who did have a homosexual orientation but I never knew any of them to break their vow of celibacy," Rogers said. "I would not want the church to send the message that homosexual-oriented people are not welcome.
"Scripture may admonish against sexual activity outside of marriage, whether homosexual or heterosexual, but it never says that Jesus prohibited homosexual-oriented people from worshipping him."
Tribune staff contributed to this report.