Pope Benedict's First Six Months

As Pope Benedict XVI marks the first six months of his papacy, questions arise about how the Catholic church will address a shortage of priests. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter offers his insights.

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Pope Benedict XVI is presiding over the 21st Synod of Bishops in Rome this week. So far, their discussions have centered around celibacy and the worldwide shortage of priests. Behind the scenes, many are talking about the upcoming Vatican document on homosexuals in the seminary. It's been nearly six months since Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became pope, and to take the pulse of his papacy so far and for the latest news, we've called John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in Rome.

Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Let's go to this issue that seems to be burning the Catholic Church's ear at the moment: homosexuality in the seminaries. First of all, the document is expected to come out next month and there's already talk of a very hard line, but almost coincidentally, church officials are beginning inspection visits of American seminaries, and it's been reported that they're going to be looking for evidence of homosexuality. You've been talking to a senior Vatican official about all of this. What do you know?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, first of all, Liane, I think the thing we have to say about that document is that we don't have it yet. And in church texts, the devil is always in the details, and so to some extent, this is all speculation. The latest information we're getting is that the document is not going to take quite the sort of absolutist line that had initially been reported; that is, it's likely to say that when a candidate coming to a seminary has a homosexual orientation, that that person should not be advanced if he has not demonstrated the capacity to be celibate for at least three years, if he is taking part in these so-called gay culture, that is, going to gay pride rallies and so on, and if that orientation is so overwhelming and so permanent and univocal as to make being in an all-male environment a subject of risk. But it is apparently going to leave that decision in the hands of bishops and seminary rectors to make on a case-by-case basis.

HANSEN: Now to Pope Benedict. He's been six months as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. What do you think are the noteworthy benchmarks of his papacy so far?

Mr. ALLEN: I think the way he has confirmed some expectations and confounded others. I mean, you know as well as anybody what the expectations were: that he would be a strong authoritarian, conservative, almost traditionalist pope that might actually downsize the Catholic church, drive away all the dissenters and so on, and end up with this lean, mean, very conservative version of Catholicism. And on some issues, we certainly have seen the hard line that some expected, beginning with the forced resignation of Father Tom Reese as the editor of the Jesuit magazine in the United States, America, related to some articles challenging church teaching that America had published, through to, of course, this forthcoming document on homosexuals and some other issues.

On the other hand, Pope Benedict has also in many other contexts come across as a surprisingly positive and surprisingly open figure. Many things we could mention there, from his performance at World Youth Day, where he never went negative but instead talked about Christianity as a religion of love and so on, to his very surprising meeting on September 24th with a man who has long been his arch nemesis--that is, a liberal Swiss Catholic theologian, Father Hans Kung, in which the two men did not talk about the issues that divide them but instead things that unite them, most prominently the effort to try to put together a common set of ethical principles among the world's religions to bring a kind of humanistic critique to this very savage form of globalization we see going on. I think that was a strong gesture of openness and reconciliation on the part of the pope.

HANSEN: At the synod that's going on now in Rome, the bishops are meeting and they're talking about a lot of issues, but the two big ones seem to be the worldwide shortage of priests and celibacy. Are those two issues linked in any way?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I mean, they're connected at the core, because if you have a shortage of priests, which I think virtually everyone agrees that the church does, one question that many people would ask is: Would the Catholic Church be able to recruit, in effect, more priests if it didn't impose the requirement of celibacy? Some bishops have argued for a rethink on that question; that is, for being open to ordination of married men, especially these so-called viri probati. These are--the Latin phrase meaning `tested married men'; that is, married men who are well-known in the community for being solid on doctrine and being pillars of the community's way.

Other bishops, however, particularly those who come from parts of the world where the Orthodox Church is very prominent, say that a married priesthood is not necessarily the solution to the problem. They point out that a married priests often feels divided between his family and his parish, that it's much more difficult to move a married priest out of a parish where he may be having problems if his wife has a job and his kids are in schools and so forth. And so they're making the argument that, practically speaking, sometimes a married priesthood can create as many problems as it solves.

HANSEN: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in Rome.

John, thanks a lot.

Mr. ALLEN: A pleasure, Liane.

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