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Desde Washington

New Pope Should Reach Out to 'Inactive Catholics'

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 7, 2005; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- I confess that I've been feeling more Catholic than usual this week, a fact that reflects the intensity of the moment and, sadly, the fair-weather nature of my religiosity. I am not a church-attending Catholic but what you might call a Catholic by default, having grown up in Latin America where more than 80 percent of the population claims some affiliation with the church.

Latin America is home to nearly one of every two Catholics in the world today, the sheer numbers of which make many in the region hopeful that the College of Cardinals will select a Latin American pope. At least five of the papabili, the most likely candidates to succeed John Paul II, are from the region.

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Read Marcela Sanchez's previous Desde Washington columns.

If indeed a Latin American is chosen to be the spiritual leader of one-sixth of the world's population, the hope is he would be an activist for his region much like his predecessor was. Polish-born John Paul II paid special attention to Eastern Europe and played a fundamental role in the peaceful collapse of communism. A Latin American pope would bring special attention to the plight of the poor in the developing world, helping to ease the widening divide between rich and poor, prosperity and despair.

But even if a Latin American were chosen, and even if he set out to bridge this divide, it is hard to imagine he could do so without first addressing those aspects of his church that have left so many Catholics in the region disaffected.

Millions of Catholics in Latin America -- as in the developed world -- have turned against church dogma on sex, artificial birth control, and abortion. Even in the world's largest Catholic country, Brazil, where 80 percent consider themselves followers, 70 percent of married women use a method of artificial contraception, only two percentage points lower than women in the United States, according to the Population Reference Bureau. And that doesn't even take into account the millions of women who use birth control before marriage.

Last year the Catholic Church lost its long fight against divorce in the region when the Chilean congress approved a law recognizing divorce, making that country the last in Latin America to do so. Meanwhile, countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Chile are considering measures to legally recognize gay couples.

Such disparities between church dogma and the realities of the modern world have made many in the United States and Europe "cafeteria Catholics,'' picking and choosing which teachings to live by, or changing religious affiliations altogether. In Latin America, where the Catholic Church is so pervasive that nearly every town is built around one, defecting to another denomination is much less of an option than simply becoming an "inactive Catholic.'' A religious life in these circumstances is not shifted elsewhere but dropped completely.

This is most apparent among people like me -- people who have become comfortable living a life without religious guidance and who seek out a priest merely for marriages and funerals. In some respects we have even adopted an elitist attitude toward those who don't share our inactivity and have found spiritual fulfillment in more charismatic faiths such as Pentecostalism.

I am not sure if a liberalized dogma would draw back into the church people who are now Catholics by default or cultural Catholics. But I am certain that if the church does not reconsider certain dogmas it will lose further relevance for those in the middle and upper classes who have become pretty good at justifying religious inactivity.

If a Latin American pope, or any pope, were to take on the question of Latin America's economic divide, he should be the first to recognize that the problem hinges not only on economic policies, governance or effective democratic institutions, but on a re-evaluation of values as well. Ironically, it is those who are outside the church in Latin America -- and who feel more and more divorced from its mission -- who would need to reconsider our priorities in the context of the plight of the poorest fellow citizens.

Reaching outside of ourselves and making a commitment to others beyond our immediate family and our job demands a sort of soul-searching many of us rarely practice. And while this sort of reflection need not be done exclusively in a church, it is there where it is regularly practiced and cultivated for a greater good.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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