VATICAN CITY, April 23 -- Pope Benedict XVI presented a smiling papacy to the world's news media Saturday while, in the background, the Vatican's battle over same-sex marriage legislation in Spain presented the pontiff with an early test of his moral authority.
On the fourth full day of his reign, Benedict strode into Paul VI Hall, a low building with a curved roof on the Vatican grounds, and cheerfully waved to hundreds of reporters gathered for his first meeting with the media. Groups of adults, teenagers and schoolchildren seated in the back of the hall chanted in adulation, similar to the greeting that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, received wherever he went.
Benedict thanked the media for its coverage of the "historically important" days of the papal transition. "I hope to follow this dialogue with you -- and I share, as Pope John Paul II observed concerning the faith, the development of social communications," he said.
Benedict sat on a gilt throne in a large auditorium and read a statement of thanks in Italian, German, French and English, but took no questions. When John Paul was elected pope in 1978, he first met with reporters inside the tight confines of the Clement Room in the Apostolic Palace, took questions and mingled with journalists.
True to his previous role as chief guardian of Catholic orthodoxy and moral teaching, Benedict lectured the journalists on the need to possess "clear references of the ethical responsibilities" and to engage in a "sincere search for the truth and the safeguarding of the centrality and the dignity of the person."
Vatican TV broadcast not only his speech, but also the images of a line of clerics as they approached the pope, knelt and kissed his hand. Earlier in the week, Benedict went out of his way to show a common touch. Vatican broadcasts replayed on TV in Italy and across the world showed him greeting passersby and flashing easy smiles on trips to and from his previous apartment, just a block from Vatican City. On Sunday, an installation Mass in St. Peter's Square, which can hold tens of thousands of pilgrims, also will be televised.
But behind the rituals and festivities, Benedict is overseeing a conflict between the Vatican, backed by Catholic bishops in Spain, and the Spanish government. On Thursday, Spain's lower house of parliament approved a measure that would legalize same-sex marriage and give gay couples adoption rights. Last year at a conference on European identity, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said same-sex marriages signified "a dissolution of the image of man, with extremely grave consequences." Legal endorsement, he said, represented a break from "the moral history of mankind." He had also likened homosexuality to an "intrinsic moral evil."
He and other Vatican officials also have spoken of the need to battle secular trends in Europe that they regard as anti-Christian, including stem cell research in Britain and euthanasia in the Netherlands.
On Friday, Benedict's chief official in charge of family matters, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, said Catholic functionaries in the Spanish government should refuse to officiate at same-sex weddings. Spain's bishops conference issued a statement that described the legislation as "radically unjust and damaging to the common good."
In response, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's deputy, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, said government workers had no right to refuse requests for marriage. "They have to comply with the laws that parliament approved in a democratic society," she said. The law, she said, strikes a blow at discrimination because it permits "all citizens to form a family."
Veteran Vatican observers said Benedict's early attention to Europe is no surprise. Sandro Magister, a journalist for the Italian magazine L'Espresso, said that "on the Old Continent, the church doesn't seem to be in good health." With church attendance falling, even in John Paul's native Poland, "the new pope will have a hard time climbing back up this hill," Magister said.
The Vatican's attention to Spain in the first days of Benedict's papacy may present a risk. Many of the faithful in Latin America, where the majority of the world's Catholics live, and in Africa, Catholicism's fastest-growing region, had hoped for a pope from their region who would concentrate on their problems, particularly economic issues.
Brazil's Cardinal Claudio Hummes, for example, when asked recently to list his priorities, noted the need to spread the Christian Gospel and then to attend to "the poor."
"The church must be closer to the people. Where I am from, unemployment grows," said Hummes, who is archbishop of Sao Paolo.