Can't ask. Can't tell.

If a Catholic child steals a candy bar, church doctrine calls this a small sin.

But if a priest embezzles a large amount of money, this act is much more serious -- a sin that severely corrupts and threatens the soul.

Both of these acts involve theft, but Catholicism does not believe they have equal weight. They do not have the same "parvity of matter," noted Father Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University, who once led a seminary in Ohio.

"It doesn't help to look that up in a dictionary," said Cozzens, whose recent books on the modern priesthood have generated both heat and light. "That's a theological term that describes the relative gravity of immoral thoughts, acts or behaviors. There are different levels of honesty and dishonesty. There are levels of language and cursing."

But when it comes to sex, there are no misdemeanors. Every "deliberate, willful sexual sin is, from the church's perspective, a felony -- a mortal sin," he said.

This may sound trivial, but it isn't for Catholics who worry about their church in an age of turmoil, tragedy and scandal. Cozzens is convinced that this basic question about the relative nature and consequences of sins must be discussed soon, before Vatican officials begin a long-awaited "apostolic visitation" of American seminaries.

Cozzens is known for asking questions that fray nerves on left and right. In the past five years he has described what he calls a thriving "gay subculture" in some seminaries. He noted that most cases of clergy sex abuse have involved "ephebophilia" with under-aged boys, not "pedophilia" with prepubescent children. He has detailed the impact of plunging Catholic birth rates -- below two children per family -- on parental attitudes about their children taking holy vows.

Now he is convinced that teachings about the "parvity of matter" are making it harder to tell the healthy seminarians from the dangerous ones. It is almost impossible to have candid conversations about sexuality, he said.

"This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that, according to church teaching, no individual is to be compelled or asked to reveal the 'state of his or her soul,' " he wrote, in a recent Commonweal essay. "As a consequence, the candid dialogue needed to form mature celibates is hampered and the specter of sin hangs heavy in the air. In such a climate, behavioral signs that might indicate future difficulties are often masked or simply missed."

The logic is simple. If seminarians are struggling with sexual temptations, they know that these thoughts and emotions are just as sinful as the sexual acts, he said, in a follow-up interview. It doesn't matter if the temptations involve children, teens or adults. If seminarians raise these issues in confession, they know that their superiors cannot mention these struggles in a setting that would threaten their ordination.

The result is a cloak of secrecy that covers discussions of sex. Professors cannot ask and the seminarians do not have to tell -- in public.

Cozzens said he knows of cases in which "seminary faculty simple did not feel they could ask a seminarian, 'Have you even thought about sex with a child?' If they did that they would, in effect, be asking that man to betray his conscience in a setting that would kill any chance he had of being ordained."

It is crucial to emphasize, he said, that raising questions about this "parvity of matter" issue is not the same thing as suggesting changes in the church's core teachings about sex and marriage.

It is also possible to draw a line between this issue of sexual secrecy and related debates about mandatory celibacy and the ordination of homosexuals. Based on his work as a clergy vicar, Cozzens remains convinced that gay priests are no more likely to violate their celibacy vows than those who are straight.

But it is time for candid questions, he said.

"There are men who, quite frankly, are grateful for the current sexual climate in our seminaries," said Cozzens. "It makes their efforts to hide a piece of cake. ... If our teachings changed on sex and the 'parvity of matter,' there would be all kinds of questions asked that some seminarians do not want to answer -- at least not in front of others."

A Vatican email gap?

For years, Father Joseph F. Wilson studied the U.S. Catholic clergy register, following the career of the priest who once delivered an unforgettable sexuality lecture at the Dallas seminary.

This mid-1980s forum was attended by all diocesan clergy and embraced by the local bishop, Wilson recalled, even though the speaker warned that the Vatican was reining in his ministry to gays. One urgent question from that talk: Did gay Catholics have only three true options - chastity, sin or suicide?

"The issue of gay teen-agers did come up," said Wilson, now a priest in Brooklyn. "He said he would like to discuss how priests can minister to boys in this situation, but that this was not a subject that could be addressed rationally in the church. He said people got too emotional when discussing this kind of subject."

The speaker was Father Paul R. Shanley.

At the time, the Boston "street priest" was a trailblazer in ministry to sexual minorities. Now he stands accused of being a serial child molester and an apologist for man-boy love.

The Shanley story is emerging in waves of legal documents and headlines from Boston to Dallas to San Diego. But, like so many other plot lines in the sex-abuse crisis, it is also unfolding on the Internet. These days, it's hard to ignore the role of email list operators, chat-room masters, "web log" commentators and ordinary Catholics -- with and without collars -- who can click "forward" with a mouse.

Wilson, for example, included his reflections on that long-ago Dallas lecture and a host of other issues in a formal letter to the organization Priests For Life. But the conservative priest also emailed it to a few friends, who sent it to some Internet lists, where it reached activists who posted it on the World Wide Web. And so it goes.

Eventually, Wilson's essay surfaced in a media forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where it was quoted along with coverage from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Commonweal and mainstream sources. This is merely one example of a torrent of digital commentary that is now a normal part of Catholic life behind the scenes.

Designated news media free-for-alls -- such as this week's U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas - will continue to produce policy statements that inspire close scrutiny and responses from Rome. Everyone pays attention when a crisis hits the global networks and newspapers.

But is the Vatican paying attention to the digital chorus?

During an Easter season trip to Rome, journalist and scholar George Weigel said he felt as if he had stepped into a "time warp" as he met Vatican officials who were only then facing revelations and emotions that had rocked American Catholics three to four months earlier.

"People were not sure how much of this was real and how much of it was hype. People were unsure as to how much more was coming," said Weigel, author of "Witness to Hope," the 992-page authorized biography of Pope John Paul II.

Weigel was amazed. Clearly there was some kind of "information gap" between the U.S. Catholic establishment and Rome, he said. Also, the worldly European press had remained silent, perhaps due to a jaded view of American obsessions about sex. But something else was wrong.

"Suddenly it dawned on me that the Vatican is simply not, to this day, a part of the Internet culture," said Weigel. "There are a few people who take the trouble to go online every morning or evening. ... But in the main, what we have become used to and what frames our emotional responses to these questions, namely real-time information and a constant flow of chat, commentary, argument and so forth, ... none of this exists over there."

Wilson, for one, finds it hard to believe that such an "information gap" still exists.

"I know people in Rome have that attitude: We look backward over 2000 years and forward into eternity," he said. "But there are Americans over there who understand what is happening. ... And this information has been sent to Rome for years, by mail, special delivery, telegram, fax, FedEx, Candy-Gram and however Americans choose to deliver information of vital importance."