CHICAGO — Chicago. -- At the National Book Awards ceremony last month I heard the winner, Paul Monette, read from his book ''On Becoming a Man'' (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The excerpt he read was witty and poignant.
He described his relief at not getting a job at a boys school, at a time when he was still a closeted gay. He drew a satirical sketch of what he might have become -- a repressed man loved for his neutered benevolence, yearning for what he could not openly profess.
Later, when I talked to him, I found that Mr. Monette is learned in many areas and has a special interest in the Catholic Church. The picture he had drawn reminded me of some priests I know. He has friends who are gay priests, and their quandary is like what he described.
He told me that the church's condemnation of homosexuality is not surprisingly paired with a long history of covering up pedophilia among priests. ''They can't tell the difference,'' he said with bemused sadness.
The church's attitude on sex is one of simple denial. It doesn't happen, and if it does, look the other way. The bishops know there are gays in the priesthood, and that there are lesbian nuns; but they prefer to ignore their plight, maintaining an elaborate pretense.
Then, when priests abuse young boys, the denial is extended to treating the boys as liars if they speak out, reassigning the priests without warning to new parishes, fighting any legal admission or financial compensation.
This odd mix of condemnation and protection, of saying nothing happens and covering up what happens, shows how terminally confused Catholic authorities are on the whole matter of sex.
Pedophilia is a crime -- sexual abuse of a boy minor is no more or less justifiable than heterosexual abuse of a minor. Gays are not bound to protect the pedophile any more than straight people are bound to protect the male child molester of a girl.
But denial of any sexual life between mature and consenting adults -- of marriage to priests, as well as gay relationships -- puts priests in a situation of special temptation toward minors, male and female.
The mere idea of married priests or women priests sends nervous twitches through the ranks of bishops, just as the idea of gay soldiers or women in combat disturbs the ranks of generals and admirals.
Mr. Monette knows a woman I have just heard of, Alice Callaghan, a former Catholic nun who became an Episcopal priest. She serves the Los Angeles homeless, with wide support from ecumenical and business groups because she is practical and caring.
This is the kind of person the Catholic Church drives away while mouthing nonsense such as, ''If Jesus had wanted women to be priests, he would have included a woman among the apostles.''
The apostles were married men of Jewish birth. If Jesus had wanted a celibate gentile priesthood, he would have included just one celibate gentile among the apostles -- but he didn't. The reliance on such a childish argument to exclude women priests shows how mentally crippled the Catholic Church authorities have become on such points vital to their own life.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.