"It's definitely a step back from what has been the official church teaching," said Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity, a national organization of gay Catholics not recognized by the Catholic Church.
The 1994 official catechism of the church says that homosexuals should be treated with dignity and compassion.
Based on excerpted translations in news reports, Duddy said the new glossary appears to describe homosexuality as "sick and sinful." If so, Duddy said, it represents a shift from the "more respectful" language of the official Catholic Catechism issued nine years ago, "which acknowledged homosexuality as the innate condition of some people."
"We believe that as the moral authority of the Vatican is crumbling, they are using the gay and lesbian community as scapegoats," she said in a telephone interview from her office in Boston.
In light of the clergy sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in recent years, the Vatican is studying whether to ban the ordination of homosexual men as priests and deacons. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia has for more than a decade rejected candidates for the priesthood who acknowledged that they were gay.
Pope John Paul II has devoted much of his nearly 25-year pontificate to affirming traditional church teachings on marriage.
Typical was a 2000 papal letter in which he declared that "the relationship between a man and a woman - a mutual and total bond, unique and indissoluble - is part of God's original plan," and that "on this point the Church cannot yield to cultural pressures, no matter how widespread and even militant they may be."
The lexicon - which also presents church teaching on dozens of other hot-button topics such as abortion and stem-cell research - was the idea of Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family.
It also condemns the use of condoms to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.
Bill Ryan, spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said yesterday that the Vatican decided to produce the glossary after its representatives at international bodies, such as the United Nations, charged that liberal and feminist groups were coining or bending language to promote their agendas.
"The example that comes up most often is reproductive rights, which isn't about reproduction at all," Ryan said. "It's about abortion."
Stanford University linguist Jeffrey Nunberg said language does have the power to shape cultural norms and attitudes.
A generation ago, Nunberg noted in a telephone interview, feminists steered a profound change in the status of women by campaigning against the use of "girl" and "lady" to describe adult women, and to discourage the use of male terms such as "men" and "he" as a generic synonym for people.
Such agenda-driven language may seem "propaganda" to some, Nunberg said, "but pushing the discourse can create a collective language, and establish moral norms."
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org.