Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, taking issue with the Roman Catholic Church's highest-ranking military bishop in the United States, said that gays and lesbians should be allowed to enlist in the armed forces.
"I personally feel that there are probably a number of areas where gays could be a part (of the military) and their sexual orientation would have nothing to do with anything in military life," Mahony said Thursday in an interview with The Times.
In other circumstances, such as close living quarters, Mahony said the presence of homosexuals may be ill-advised. Those concerns have been raised by others and must be considered, he said.
Overall, Mahony said he was open to gays and lesbians in the armed services. "As a lot of people have said, they have been (serving) for a long time," Mahony said.
The cardinal's remarks surprised some gay activists and come at a time of national debate over gays in the military.
President Clinton has said he is determined to end the 50-year prohibition on gays in the military. But bowing to protests from Congress and the Pentagon, he has given the Joint Chiefs of Staff six months to work out the details.
"I think you're going to find that (the Joint Chiefs) are going to say that there are some areas where this is no problem," Mahony said. "I've visited bases myself, Edwards Air Force Base and other places where you don't have this large communal living situation but small apartments. People won't even know, possibly, who's gay or straight. It's not a big deal."
The controversy has split religious leaders of various faiths. Mahony's conditional acceptance of gays in the military appears to contradict Archbishop Joseph T. Dimino, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church's ranking military prelate.
Dimino, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, based in Silver Springs, Md., wrote Clinton Jan. 27 warning that admitting homosexuals under any circumstances would have "disastrous consequences for all concerned."
"As the archbishop responsible for the religious welfare of all Catholic men, women and children associated with the armed forces and as a former military chaplain familiar with the realities of military life," Dimino wrote, "I urge you to heed the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to maintain the traditional Defense Department policy concerning homosexuality."
On Friday, Dimino's vicar general, Father Nicholas Halligan, said he was unaware of any other Roman Catholic bishop supporting gays in the service. He said Dimino's position is one of total exclusion of homosexuals from the military.
Many evangelical Protestants and some Jewish groups have been equally vociferous in their opposition.
But various mainline Protestant denominations have called for lifting the ban. The American Jewish Committee, a nondenominational human rights organization headquartered in New York, also has opposed the prohibition on gays, calling it "one of the major remaining obstacles to the achievement of full justice and equality in the United States."
Mahony's stand was greeted cautiously by gay and lesbian leaders in Los Angeles who have battled the archbishop over the use of condoms and over Masses sponsored by Dignity, a Catholic gay and lesbian organization.
"I'm surprised to a certain extent about how open the cardinal is," said David M. Smith, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation/Los Angeles. "Maybe times are changing."
In 1989, Mahony and 12 other Catholic bishops prohibited Roman Catholic priests from celebrating Masses held by Dignity on grounds that the group repudiated the church's "clear and constant moral teaching" against homosexual acts.
At the time, Mahony issued a statement that said "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."
There was nothing in the cardinal's latest remarks on gays in the military that contradicted that teaching. Mahony continues to draw a line between supporting gays serving in the military and condemning sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage. "That's what this is all about," he said.
Gay leaders generally concurred. Smith noted that military codes of conduct already regulate sexual behavior. "As long as behavior is regulated equally there should be absolutely no problem," Smith said.
But he and others objected to suggestions that gays should be precluded from some areas of military service based exclusively on their sexual orientation.
"It's sort of like 1948 when all blacks served in the mess hall," said Jack Stafford, director of the California-Nevada region of Dignity.
Halligan, of the military archdiocese, agreed that to allow homosexuals to serve in some areas but not others would be discriminatory. But he said the solution is to continue to bar gays and lesbians entirely.
Stafford said he served in the Air Force four years as a gay man without incident. For two years, he said, he lived in a barracks with 30 to 40 men on each floor.
"I was gay then and I didn't make it public knowledge. Some of the idea that homosexuals are coming out to look at peoples' bodies all the time or want to rape or molest them is ridiculous," Stafford said. "There are gay people serving in the military right now who serve honorably who are not out there for sex kicks. That's always been."