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Pope Benedict’s Agenda

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Pope Benedict XVI apparently chastised Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi over her views on abortion. Pelosi is Catholic and pro-choice. After a private meeting with Pelosi at the Vatican this week, Benedict issued a statement saying all Catholics, especially lawmakers, should work to protect all human life. Meanwhile, there’s been sharp criticism of the pope for his appearance of insensitivity to Jews when he reinstated an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust.

We have perspective on all this from John Allen, longtime Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. He joins us from Denver. John, welcome. Let’s start with the Pelosi visit. What struck you about that?

JOHN ALLEN (Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Well Bob, I think it was a classic Vatican balancing act. On the one hand, by giving the meeting to Pelosi over some criticism from some pro-life groups in the States who thought she had no business seeing the pope, Benedict signaled the desire to keep lines of communication open with the new leadership in the States. On the other hand, by publicly rapping her on the knuckles, he also called pro-choice legislators in the States to task. So it was their attempt to cover all the bases. Whether it will leave everyone fully satisfied remains to be seen.

ABERNETHY: And then, John, there’s been this strong, sharp criticism of the Vatican process, the bureaucracy, for permitting the pope to say things recently that were offensive, perhaps unnecessarily so. What do you make of that? I’ve read words like “chaos” and “incompetence” and “fatal flaw.” What’s going on?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think what we’re seeing is the culmination of a series of events. I mean it didn’t just begin with this controversy having to do with this Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop. I mean we can roll the clock back three years when the pope triggered a firestorm of protests in the Islamic world with a lecture he gave in Germany; to last year’s controversy over a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews. In recent days, there’s been a controversy regarding a bishop who was appointed in Austria. It had to be withdrawn when it became clear he had fairly extremist views. Basically, I think what’s happened is there’s a growing consensus in the Catholic world left, right, and center. But the Vatican simply has to get its communications act together, because what is happening is that the pope’s message is not getting through because it is repeatedly being obscured by these unnecessary public relations meltdowns.

ABERNETHY: And what would that involve? I mean, the pope knows the bureaucracy. He came out of it. What would it involve now?

Mr. ALLEN: Well look, Benedict XVI is one of the great intellectuals ever to occupy the papacy. He’s a brilliant theologian. He is not a public relations expert. There needs to be someone in his inner circle who can bring that kind of savvy.

ABERNETHY: And then there’s the pope’s coming trip to the Holy Land. How does all this affect that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, it recalibrates that trip significantly. It was supposed to be about advancing Catholic-Jewish relationships, in addition to the Vatican’s diplomatic relationship with Israel. I think now it becomes almost exclusively about damage control. I think the perception in the Vatican is that Benedict desperately needs this trip in order to send signals to the Jewish community that he remains committed to good working relationships.

ABERNETHY: John Allen of National Catholic Reporter, many thanks.