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Pope imposes tighter controls on events of Franciscan monks

ASSISI, Italy -- Imams, rabbis, Buddhist monks, Hindu holy men, and followers of Confucius have strolled the chalky white and pink stone courtyards of the massive basilica here. Antiglobalization activists with raised fists and Communist atheists carrying Marxist texts have conversed with gentle Catholic monks.

Peace marches and conferences on economic development, bioethics and myriad other topics have unfolded, all under the auspices of the Franciscan monks who control the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, the much-beloved and storied founder of the Franciscan order.

Such gatherings, particularly a pair of interfaith meetings between world religious officials and Pope John Paul II, attracted wide media attention. Some drew heated controversy, such as a 2003 visit by Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister at a time when the United States was gearing up to invade his country. Aziz, a Christian, lit a candle in a church.

With a stroke of the pen earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI put the future of such varied -- some would say freewheeling -- events in question, according to Roman Catholic observers, both those who favor Franciscan activism and those who oppose it.

In a decree published Nov. 19, the pope placed the Franciscans in Assisi under the threefold control of a new local bishop, the Italian Bishops Conference and a yet-to-be-named papal overseer. The edict overturned autonomy granted in 1969 by Pope Paul VI that in effect made the Franciscans ambassadors to peace movements and to outside cultural and religious groups.

In ''all initiatives with pastoral aspects," the Franciscans ''will have to request and obtain the consent" of Assisi's bishop, who will in turn ''hear the opinion" of the Umbria regional bishops conference and the Italian conference, Benedict's decree declared.

The future papal delegate will ''perpetuate, with his moral authority, the close bonds of communion" between the Vatican and the sacred places in memory of Saint Francis.

A Vatican spokesman said that under church law, pastoral activities such as the various Assisi events are ''always" under control of the local bishop.

Reminded that Paul VI had granted the Franciscans special autonomy, the spokesman replied: ''The Assisi diocese resounds globally. The actions of the Franciscans in Assisi affect not only the diocese but all Italy and even the world. It is necessary to coordinate things in a way that they work as well as possible."

Reaction to the Vatican's move was strong across Italy. ''The stronghold of dialogue has fallen. Now the Franciscans have their hands tied and can no longer be a bridge between the church and society," said Livia Turco, a member of the largest party in Italy's opposition coalition, the Democrats of the Left.

''It's about time," Bishop Sergio Goretti, the retiring bishop of Assisi, told La Repubblica newspaper. He complained that the monks had created ''an autonomous enclave."

''Sometimes, I only found out what the monks were doing when I read about it in the newspapers," he said.

The Franciscans reacted diplomatically, a caution appropriate for an order that at its 13th-century birth was critical of hierarchy but has thrived under papal authority.

''This is not an order to 'obey or else,' " said the Rev. Vincenzo Coli, custodian of the monastery that surrounds the basilica that houses Saint Francis' tomb, speaking in an interview. ''This is done, I believe, in the spirit of collegiality. In theory, there is no problem. In practice, we will see."

Benedict's decree is a benchmark in the evolution of his seven-month-old papacy, many church observers say. So far, his reign has been an exercise in the tightening of practice to match church doctrine as he sees it.

The new pope has taken the offensive against Catholic politicians who tolerate abortion and gay marriage, moved to bar homosexual men from entering seminaries and admonished bishops who fail to promote ''the certainty of the fullness of the Church's faith."

In the view of critics, few places within the church challenged Catholic certainties more flamboyantly than Assisi.

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