By Luke Coppen and Bruce Johnston In Rome
THE VATICAN was on collision course with gay rights campaigners this week after it ordered a priest and a nun not to discuss a ruling forbidding them to minister to homosexuals.
In a separate move, which has also provoked gay anger, it has appealed to the Italian government to ban a huge "gay pride" rally through the streets of Rome next month.
The Vatican issued a "clarification" last week ordering Fr Robert Nugent and Sr Jeannine Grantmick to abide by a ruling permanently forbidding them from ministering to gay people.
It made the ruling in July last year following concern that the leaders of the controversial American New Ways gay ministry were distorting Church teaching on homosexuality.
The new clarification now prevents them from speaking or writing about the issue of homosexuality and from discussing last year's ruling publicly.
The clarification was seized upon by the ad hoc gay Catholic group, Celebrating Catholic Diversity, who branded it "scandalous". A spokesman for the group called for the Church to establish an "international study commission" to re-examine the issue of homosexuality and mend relations with the gay community.
He said: "The lack of an open conversation in our Church on issues related to homosexuality is having a seriously negative effect on so many aspects of the Church's mission and ministry."
Meanwhile, the Vatican is putting mounting pressure on Italy's political elite to ban a week-long gay rights rally in Rome. The rally's organisers want to mark the millennium by creating history's first-ever world gay rights event in the Eternal City in July.
The Vatican is insisting that Italy and its capital reconsider, on the grounds that the concordat between the two states imposes a duty to safeguard Rome's role as a "sacred city".
Fearing that a gathering of an estimated 300,000 people in the city centre will turn into a sensational protest against the Pope at a time when 200,000 Polish pilgrims are due in Rome, the Church is asking that the rally be postponed until at least next year.
The row, which has been simmering for months, flared up last week when Giuliano Amato, Italy's premier, told Parliament that the march in Rome would now be "inopportune".
Asked by the far-right to ban it, he implied that he was not in favour. But he said that "unfortunately" Italy's constitution guaranteed people the right to protest.
Mr Amato, an admirer of the Pope, urged that the march be relegated to a clearly defined space, away from the Vatican.
After his intervention, Rome's mayor Francesco Rutelli, previously a keen supporter of the rally, distanced himself, saying that it could still go ahead, but that Rome would no longer officially back it.
Rome's 11 Messaggero meanwhile claimed that as a result of a compromise reached after a secret meeting between Mr Amato Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, it had been decided to let the rally go ahead, but far away from the centre.