Though continuing to stress that same-sex relationships are immoral, America's Roman Catholic bishops may approve new guidelines this week that would absolve gay Catholics of any obligation to try to alter their sexual orientation.
The guidelines for ministering to homosexuals, to be reviewed when bishops convene today in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting, also will urge clergy to baptize the adopted children of same-sex couples who agree to raise them Catholic.
"We are trying to find a language that does not betray the teaching of the church, but will perhaps express it in ways that are not so offensive," Cardinal Francis George, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview.
The bishops also will vote on a document on the reception of Communion, which could lay a foundation that would make it easier for clergy to deny the sacrament to Catholics at odds with the church, including politicians.
The issue surfaced during the 2004 presidential campaign when some bishops threatened to deny Communion to the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.
"That started a conversation that wasn't resolved, but brought up this other thing — worthiness to receive Communion on everybody's part," George said. "It shouldn't be automatic. There's personal scrutiny and examination of conscience that should take place."
Missing from the meeting's agenda is any mention of the Iraq war, an absence that irks parishioners who believe the bishops should focus on that issue rather than homosexuality.
"They're much more concerned with whether two homosexuals are going to get married or not. They've lost focus on the needs of the human race," said Sam Sinnett, president of DignityUSA, a gay Catholic group.
The documents on ministering to gay people, drafted by conference committees, could encounter opposition from some conservative bishops. Recent Vatican directives bar most gay men from pursuing ordination and prohibit priests with "homosexual tendencies" from teaching or running seminaries.
Since issuing those injunctions, Pope Benedict XVI has implied a connection between homosexuality and the clergy sex abuse scandal, declaring a need to "purify" the church.
Stephen Colecchi, director of the conference's office of international justice and peace, said bishops might take up the issue of withdrawal from Iraq even if it was not on the schedule.
The bishops also are expected to channel funds toward a study on the causes and context of the clergy sex abuse crisis. George said bishops expected to generate the most comprehensive data in the nation on the issue and hoped to garner additional financial support from outside sources for the multimillion-dollar study.