Pope faces controversy on gay priests and HIV/AIDS
Fresh from what is seen as a positive overall endorsement by World Youth Day in Cologne, Pope Benedict XVI has had his mind turned back to continuing controversies in his Church - particularly the question of HIV/AIDS and the issue of ordination and sexual orientation.
According to The Observer newspaper and sources close to the Vatican, the head of the world's 1.5 billion Catholics is currently scrutinizing a draft report produced by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, which includes a recommendation that gay men should automatically be excluded from training for the priesthood.
Though the Catholic Church has officially deemed homosexual practice 'gravely disordered', there is currently no bar on those of non-heterosexual orientation becoming priests provided they adhere to celibacy.
The new Instruction, which has not been formally agreed or made public, is being drawn up as part of the Vatican's overall response to the sexual abuse scandals in the US and elsewhere.
There seems to be an implicit implication, vigorously disputed by lesbian and gay Catholics and by psycho-sexual studies, that homosexual priests are more likely to abuse the young than heterosexual ones.
However, The Observer quotes Dr John Haldane, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, as saying that the Congregation's document is being written 'in a very pastoral mode' and 'will not attack gay lifestyle'.
Instead the argument is being advanced that it would be unfair for gay priests to train alongside non-gay ones, because it puts all concerned under pressure and in the way of temptation.
If Pope Benedict demanded that heterosexuality should be a pre-condition of admission to a celibate priesthood, it would stir significant controversy inside and outside the Church. It would also raise the question about how orientation could be ëproved'.
As far as the global media was concerned, the new pontiff's appearance at the recent celebrations in his native Germany amounted to a powerful endorsement by nearly one million of the faithful.
But there were also dissenting voices. The ëWorld Youth Day 4All' network brought together a wide range of groups calling for reform within the Catholic Church in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. At a Youth Hearing they claim they gained considerable response (including support from some bishops) for their stand.
'For the first time ever, both Catholic and sexual health activists have joined hands in creating a 16-country coalition using 11 languages to challenge what is a great injustice: the Vatican's ban on the use of condoms,' declared spokesperson Ozzie Warwick, from Trinidad and Tobago.
He continued: 'We have said it loudly so that it rings around the world. Last year, there were 39.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Almost 60,000 people died of AIDS this week as we waited for the pope. We will not accept the Vatican's lobbying at forums like the United Nations and the European Union to stop Catholics and non-Catholics gaining access to life-saving condoms.'
'We had fantastic reactions from most people we approached,' added Andrea Ramirez from Bolivia. 'Our coalition knows the winds of change are blowing through the Catholic Church now more than everÖ The young pilgrims were glad we were there spreading the word about HIV and condoms. One African nun was especially happyÖ She told me that the youth must do the responsible thing and use condoms.'
Traditionalists say that a message of sexual abstinence outside marriage is the only morally acceptable one for the Church, even if many people ignore it.
Other dissenters taking part in seminars around the fringes of World Youth Day included ëWe Are Church', a lay network calling for radical change in the hierarchy, campaigners for an end to compulsory priestly celibacy, and the ecumenical Homosexuelle und Kirche group.
'While [there was] hardly any room given to controversial issues in the official WYD program, young believers' response to critical questions [was] enormous', according Aisha Taylor, programme director of the US-based Women's Ordination Conference.
Less confrontationally, nine official international Catholic youth organisations took the opportunity of WYD to present a message calling for papal attention to issues of justice and peace.
Meanwhile, Lutz Kinkel of Stern magazine was among those who claimed that on-site computers set up for the thousands of journalists covering World Youth Day were ëfiltered' by the Church to exclude ëundesirable' websites. Reporter Doug Ireland called this 'censorship' and said it targeted 'homosexuality in particular.'
A recent UK Channel 4 television documentary, ëGod's Rottweiler?' portrayed the pontiff as hard and unyielding. Supporters say this is an unfair picture.
Pope Benedict XVI is known to be strongly against any change in the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, homosexulaity, priestly celibacy and the role of women.