The new Pope faces his first controversy over the direction of the Catholic Church after it was revealed that the Vatican has drawn up a religious instruction preventing gay men from becoming priests.
The controversial document, produced by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, the body overseeing the church's training of the priesthood, is being scrutinized by Benedict XVI.
There had been suggestions Rome would publish the instruction earlier this month, but dropped the plan out of concerns such a move might tarnish his visit to his home town of Cologne last week. The document expresses the Church's belief that gay men should no longer be allowed to enter seminaries to study for the priesthood.
Currently, as all priests take a vow of celibacy, their sexual orientation has not been considered a pressing concern. Vatican watchers believe the Pope harbors doubts about whether the church should publish the document.
The instruction tries to dampen the controversy by eschewing a moral line, arguing instead that the presence of homosexuals in seminaries is `unfair' to both gay and heterosexual priests by subjecting the former to temptation.
"It will be written in a very pastoral mode," John Haldane, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, said. "It will not be an attack on the gay lifestyle. It will not say `homosexuality is immoral.' But it will suggest that admitting gay men into the priesthood places a burden both on those who are homosexual and those they are working alongside who are not."
The instruction was drawn up as part of the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse scandal that surfaced in the US church three years ago, which has seen hundreds of priests launch lawsuits against superiors whom they accuse of abusing them.
As the former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body charged with looking into the abuse claims, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was made acutely aware of the scale of the problem. He is thought to have made clearing up the scandal one of the key goals of his papacy.
Next month the Vatican will send investigators to the US to gauge the scale of the scandal. More than 100 bishops and seminary staff will visit 220 campuses. The teams will review documents provided by the schools and seminaries and may interview teachers, students and recent alumni. They will report directly to the Vatican which could then choose to issue the instruction barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood as part of its response.
Studies show that a significant proportion of men who enter seminaries to train for the priesthood are gay. Any move that signals homosexuals will no longer be allowed to enter seminaries, even one couched in the arcane language used by the Vatican, could have a significant impact on the number of recruits to the priesthood.
It is expected the document would be signed by a cardinal rather than the Pope himself -- in a bid to distance the pontiff from criticism -- if the Vatican decides to publish it.
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