The issue is the Roman Catholic Church's views on homosexuality and AIDS.
On one side is the church hierarchy. Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony has banned priests from saying Mass for an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics, condemned a San Fernando High School health clinic program for gay teen-agers and declared that chastity, rather than the use of condoms, is the only "morally correct and medically secure way" to prevent the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
On the other side are politically active gay and lesbian Catholics who demonstrate against church officialdom, maintaining that they should be included in church activities and that "safe sex" is medically and morally sound. This month the issue heated up when an underground group of dissenters defaced four Los Angeles County churches and distributed posters declaring Mahony to be a murderer.
Stuck in the middle are the practicing gay and lesbian Catholics who are not actively protesting and who do not wish to give up their association with the church.
"At times you feel sort of like an undercover agent," said Rick, who lives in the Thousand Oaks area and did not, like most of the gay Catholics interviewed for this article, want his last name to be printed. He attends Mass at his local church every Sunday.
Rick used to belong to Dignity, a national organization with about 5,000 members that sponsors Masses for gay men and lesbians. Last year, Mahony followed the lead of church officials in other parts of the country by banning Dignity from holding services in church facilities. Then, in June, he declared that priests could not administer Mass to Dignity groups in any venue. Rick's local chapter of Dignity disbanded.
"I left the church for a while in anger but I found that my life was just generally miserable," Rick said. "I felt the lack of religion in my life."
Rick tried associating with Protestant groups that welcomed homosexuals, but he did not find them fulfilling. "I don't want to put down those ministers in any way," he said, "but it just was not a Catholic organization. That's what I, personally, needed."
The Los Angeles chapter of Dignity still exists and holds meetings at several locations, including St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in North Hollywood. Indeed, the Los Angeles chapter celebrates Mass every Sunday, often with a priest willing to defy Mahony's directive.
"We know priests who are still willing to come and do Mass for us," said Jack Stafford, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Dignity, which he said has a membership of about 200. "And if we can't get one for a particular Sunday, a para-liturgy is done. It's a Mass without a priest, like what is done in areas where there are priestless congregations."
But their defiance goes only so far. Stafford said he does not know anyone in the underground group, which calls itself Greater Religious Responsibility, that took credit for spattered red paint on four area churches, including St. Charles Church of North Hollywood, in the early hours of Dec. 3, the first Sunday of Advent.
"I had never even heard of that group before all this happened," Stafford said. "I understand why it has come to this. When people feel adamant about an issue and do not feel they are being effective by expressing themselves in words, they sometimes turn to the kind of acts that occurred."
Although he understands the motivation behind the group's actions, he vehemently disagrees with them. "What they did was not effective at all," he said. "It will not get the church to listen. Just the opposite. It is not going to give us a positive image.
"I am against all acts of violence, and I consider what they did to be violence, violence against the church and the community. It was an act of intolerance, and intolerance just breeds intolerance."
Sandy, a member of a Los Angeles Dignity offshoot called Lesbian Catholics Together, is more sympathetic to Greater Religious Responsibility. "This archbishop has done nothing for lesbians and very little for Catholic women in general," she said. "The biggest problem is that he is spreading such misinformation. It makes it especially difficult for young people just coming out."
But Sandy, 47, who lives in North Hollywood, has also chosen to stay in the church. "We have taught ourselves that we are the church," she said. "It's not some bureaucratic group of men who make pronouncements. It's people like us. We consider ourselves cultural Catholics, and it would be hard for us to leave, no matter how conservative the edicts are."
Lesbian Catholics Together meets once a month in members' homes. Sandy said the group, which has about 25 active members, can usually find a sympathetic priest to say Mass.
"It is almost like in the early church when they met in people's homes in secret," she said with a laugh. "But we find that it is important to get together. We are a support to each other emotionally and we share our spirituality."
It's not spirituality but sexuality that disturbs the church when it comes to homosexuals. In his statement banning priests from celebrating Masses sponsored by Dignity, Mahony reiterated the official church position that "while . . . homosexual orientation in itself is not to be regarded as a sinful condition . . . genital activity by unmarried persons, or by married persons without being open to procreation, is morally wrong."
"I don't follow the church's edicts in that respect any more than some of the priests do not," Rick said, angrily. "I have had a monogamous, loving relationship with a man for eight years and we care about each other in a very special way."
Rick met the man he lives with at a Dignity Mass in Ventura County, before that group dissolved.
"We go to church together every Sunday now, just like any other couple."
Except that in the church they do not acknowledge to other worshipers that they are a couple. "I guess that there are some places where you cannot be the person you want to be," Rick said. "I needed the church and I needed to get on with my life, so this is what I do. It's unfortunate. You want the church to be a place of warmth and understanding for everyone."
He does not "confess" to homosexual acts to his priest.
"I tried that once, a long time ago," he said. "It was with an older priest. I hardly started talking about it and he said, 'You don't want to be doing that.' Then he absolved me from my sins and I was out of there before I hardly knew what happened. It was not a good experience."
Sandy and her lover also go to church together on occasion. "We used to live in Tarzana, and in that parish we were pretty much known as a lesbian couple," she said. "But where we are now, it hasn't really come up."
Eventually, if the arguments about homosexuality and the church continue to heat up, she said, she might feel compelled to go more public with her views.
"I think if someone said something I really disagreed with, something I found I could not just let go, I would speak out. I would have to do something."
In the meantime, Stafford advises patience.
"We can do a lot more from inside the church than those who deface it," he said. "Our time of acceptance will come. This archbishop and this Pope do not listen to us a lot, now. But they are not in there forever. There will be others."