Pope Benedict's Early Focus

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Pope Benedict XVI's first major formal instruction to the Roman Catholic church is that men with "deep seated homosexual tendencies" may not enter into seminary to become priests. John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter discusses recent church developments with Scott Simon.


In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave special autonomy to the friars who tend the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Paul based his decision on the 18th century writings of Pope Benedict XIV. But now there's a new Pope Benedict in town, and at a recent edict, Pope Benedict XVI took autonomy away from the Franciscans in Assisi. The interfaith dialogue and activism that the Franciscans customarily promote will now be more closely regulated by church leaders.

What does this decision signal about Pope Benedict XVI's new brand of leadership? John Allen is a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and joins us from Rome.

Mr. Allen, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And let's just try that question out on you. Is sometimes a cigar just a cigar? What does this decision portend?

Mr. ALLEN: I think it does say something about a frustration that many curial officials, the curia being the pope's bureaucracy, had in the waning years of John Paul's pontificate, which is a certain sense that some disciplinary housekeeping was not getting attended to, and certainly one of the items high on their list would have been precisely the situation of the Franciscans at Assisi. It has long been perceived in conservative circles in the Italian church and in the papal bureaucracy that Assisi was something of a rallying point for the Catholic left and, for that matter, for the political left, in Italy. The Franciscans are also known as being simpatico with some of the more progressive forces inside the Catholic Church, and so I think all of this had been a gathering frustration, and people had been hoping that some disciplinary step would be taken, and now, as you indicated, it has been taken. And I think that's probably an indication that there is some tightening up and some housekeeping that people felt had not been attended to under John Paul II that is going to get its due attention now.

SIMON: John, there was another story this week that may relate. This is the reported beating of more than a dozen Franciscan nuns who were defending a school that came under attack in China. Is there some sense among various Catholic orders that they have become a target in various spots around the world?

Mr. ALLEN: China is one of the few places left in the world where Catholic priests, Catholic nuns, Catholic bishops are still routinely subject to police harassment and occasionally subject to arrest. And religious freedom is important to the Vatican not merely because, obviously, it doesn't want its personnel beat up or being thrown into the slammer but also because there is a conviction in the Vatican that China is in a sense the world's last great missionary frontier. That is, you've got a population of more than a billion people. Thirteen million Catholics in China today could be 130 million Catholics within a generation if the Chinese were to open up on religious freedom. So, you know, this would be something that Ratzinger has been thinking about, writing about, working on for the last two decades, that China, to some extent, in terms of missionary activities, is where the action is.

SIMON: Let--how do you read the significance, John, of the edict issued this week by Pope Benedict that men with what were called `deep-seated homosexual tendencies' or who support a gay culture may not enter the seminary and then become priests?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think what difference it's going to make on the ground, in practical day-to-day reality, remains to be seen. I mean, what we have seen since the document came out is there appear to be some very wildly differing interpretations about what its actual--in other words, what that phrase `deep-seated homosexual tendencies' actually means. Some, including the French monsignor who wrote the official commentary on the document in L'Osservatore Romano--That's the Vatican's official newspaper--have said that it means any candidate with a same-sex orientation has to be excluded. But many others, including the president of the American bishops' conference, the president of the English bishops' conference, have said that's not what they interpret it to mean, that to them, if a candidate has a same-sex orientation, but he's psychologically mature and capable of living a celibate life, that's good enough for them. But I think in terms of what it tells us about Benedict's papacy, it's another example of the kind of bit of internal discipline that many people had hoped would be dealt with under John Paul II that had to wait for a new man and that is now getting its attention.

SIMON: John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, thank you very much.

Mr. ALLEN: Scott, it's always a pleasure.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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