Months before the Vatican issued a formal policy barring gay men from the seminary, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien made his own feelings clear.
"I think anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity, or who has strong homosexual inclinations, would be best not to apply to a seminary and not to be accepted into a seminary," O'Brien, then the leader of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, told the National Catholic Register in 2005.
His position became the Roman Catholic Church's. It was not the first time O'Brien played a central role in the church's relationship with its gay and lesbian members. In 1978, he helped found Courage, a group in New York that ministers to those with same-sex attractions and encourages them to lead celibate lives.
More recently, O'Brien has headed a seminary review, ordered by the Vatican, that examined all 229 U.S. seminaries for "evidence of homosexuality," as well as for faculty members who dissent from church teaching. The review has been completed but a final report is yet to be issued.
In an interview with The Sun yesterday, O'Brien said homosexuality is "not conducive to a healthy view and living out of celibacy" because "there's secrecy involved." The archbishop, who spent 12 years as a seminary rector in New York and Rome, said his view on admitting gays to the seminary is shaped by personal experience.
"There have been incidents that I've seen in seminaries and after the seminary where homosexual men strongly inclined do have special difficulties in living a counter-cultural value within a church that sees this to be a disorder," said O'Brien, the archbishop-designate of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
In 2005, during an interview with The NewsHour on PBS regarding the seminary review, O'Brien said, "We don't want our people to think, as our culture is now saying, there's really no difference whether one is gay or straight, is homosexual or heterosexual. We think for our vocation that there is a difference, and our people expect to have a male priesthood that sets a strong role model of maleness."
The military has also grappled with the issue of gays in its ranks, adopting in 1993 a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that ousts gays if their orientation becomes known by superiors. Several former generals recently called for its repeal.
Asked yesterday whether he supports the policy, O'Brien said, "It seems to be working."
With estimates from Catholic scholars and authors putting the proportion of gay priests at about half of the American priesthood, observers say O'Brien's arrival in Baltimore could have substantial effects on the two seminaries that fall under the archdiocese: St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore and Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg.
"My guess is he's not going to want homosexuals in his seminary," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Reese said O'Brien could make it clear to other bishops not to send gay seminarians to Baltimore.
St. Mary's Seminary is sometimes referred to as "The Pink Palace" by conservative Catholics (including Michael S. Rose, author of the 2002 book Goodbye, Good Men) for its reputation of tolerance toward gay seminarians. To send O'Brien, who is known for his traditional view on homosexuality, to Baltimore could be a signal from the Vatican that the days of such tolerance are over.
Indeed, some observers have suggested that the seminary review headed by O'Brien and the focus on gay priests that came in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal have made gay priests and seminarians more cautious of expressing themselves, and they say that is not healthy for those training for the priesthood.
"You need a formation process that takes seriously their orientation, to help them be celibate," Reese said. He and others said the new directive barring seminary admission for gays sends a message to gay priests that their ordination was a mistake.
"God is calling and has called both straight and gay men to ministry as priests," said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church. "I think it would be a loss for the church if gay men who believe they have a call to the priesthood would not be admitted to seminary training."
O'Brien's first work with gays and lesbians came when he was vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York and Cardinal Terence Cooke tasked him to repair relations with groups that felt marginalized by the church, including those who had divorced and remarried.
With the Rev. John Harvey and another priest, O'Brien founded the Courage group for gays and lesbians. It encouraged prayer, fellowship and mutual support as a means for members to deal with their attractions, and suggested gays and lesbians live "chaste lives," according to its Web site.
"We went all around the Archdiocese of New York during 1979 and part of 1980, giving talks to priests on helping people with same-sex attractions who were Catholic and wanted to lead a good, chaste life," Harvey, who remains the group's president, said yesterday.
Courage now has 110 chapters worldwide. But in the beginning, it was sometimes difficult to convince parish priests that its efforts were worthwhile.
"You really had to explain to people that this is a wonderful group and we had to show them the help we can offer," O'Brien said. The group is different, however, from those such as Exodus International, an interdenominational Christian organization that claims to convert gays to heterosexuality. O'Brien said he would not get involved with a group like that.
But Sam Sinnett, president of DignityUSA, a group for gay and lesbian Catholics, said that for years Courage promoted the idea of curing people of homosexuality.
"They keep talking about people changing their God-given sexual orientation," Sinnett said. "That's just not a possibility. And any professional knows that. To live in willful ignorance of that is a terrible thing, particularly for a moral teacher."
Sinnett said his group also disagrees with O'Brien's and the Vatican's position on gays in the seminary. "Any bishop in this country knows that some of their finest priests are gay and that many of their brother bishops are gay," he said. "Particularly in this day of shortages, to turn away vocations and to undercut the fine gay priests in a diocese - this is the poorest type of a leadership a bishop could give."
O'Brien rejected the notion that the new seminary policy sends the wrong message to gay priests. "Each case varies," he said.
But he added that he once received a letter from a gay priest who was "very angry" that he had been allowed through the seminary because it was difficult to reconcile celibacy with "being homosexually inclined in a strong way," O'Brien said.
The archbishop added, "I would think that a priest of whatever orientation, if he has the gift of grace and has been successful in leading a celibate life, should thank God and realize that not everyone ... has been so successful."