In Brazil, Pope to Face A Church Losing Hold

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

SAO PAULO, May 8 -- When Pope Benedict XVI lands here Wednesday for his first visit to Latin America since becoming pontiff, he will set foot in a region considered by many here to be the heart of his church, home to nearly half the world's Roman Catholics.

A clear challenge awaits him: to persuade them to stay true to a church that is losing thousands of adherents throughout the region every day.

Latin America is still predominantly Catholic, but not like it used to be. In Brazil, for example, as evangelical Pentecostalism has spread, the country's population has gone from being 89 percent Catholic in 1980 to about 64 percent today, according to a survey released this week by the Brazilian polling firm DataFolha.

Similar shifts are happening throughout the region, from Mexico to Chile. Young people have shown a greater reluctance to join the clergy, resulting in a priest shortage that is 10 times more severe regionwide than it is in North America or Europe. Many congregations have tried to retain members by relaxing the formality of Masses and infusing services with more emotion, fueling a "charismatic movement" that is now practiced by roughly half of Brazilian Catholics, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"There is a trend here -- even among priests -- that people should be more free to follow their own conscience, and there's a growing distance between most Catholics and the church's hierarchy," said the Rev. Luiz Roberto Benedetti, a Catholic priest who is a professor of social science at the Catholic University of Campinas, near Sao Paulo. "It's a trend that goes in the complete opposite direction of the message that the pope wants to send."

Benedict's five-day visit to Brazil will give him the chance to deliver his message to huge crowds in what remains the largest Catholic nation in the world. On Thursday evening, the 80-year-old pope is expected to fill a soccer stadium during a youth rally. As many as 1 million people are expected to attend his open-air Mass on Friday morning at an airfield in Sao Paulo. On Sunday he will preside over a second public Mass in Aparecida, west of Rio de Janeiro, where he will also open a conference of Latin American bishops.

In a letter to those bishops in February, Benedict wrote that the rise of the evangelical churches -- he calls them "sects" -- is something they must work together to understand: The church, he wrote, "must deal with the proselytism of sects and the growing influence of post-modern hedonistic secularism. If we are to find the right answers, we must think seriously about what makes the sects attractive."

Many Catholics in Latin America have been anxiously awaiting this trip, Benedict's first to the Western Hemisphere. During his first two years heading the Vatican, his speeches and writings have extolled the basics of the faith, emphasizing charity and compassion. But he retains a reputation as a rigorous theologian: To him, the idea of bending the religion to the times is philosophically inconsistent with the eternal truths he believes the church is built upon.

In Latin America, where grinding poverty and violence are defining qualities of life in many places, some are looking for direct responses from Benedict to contemporary problems. David Gibson, author of the 2006 biography "The Rule of Benedict," said the pope believes that spiritual poverty must be addressed before material poverty -- a principle that might satisfy theoretical needs, he said, if not practical ones.

"The problem is that there are all these issues -- real, hard, concrete issues -- that demand practical solutions in Latin America, and he's going to come essentially with his message of simple, basic faith," Gibson said. "You can't argue with that, but the question is: 'Is it enough?' "

The Catholic Church throughout Latin America has grappled with that question for decades. In the 1960s, a school of thought called liberation theology emerged in Peru and took hold throughout the region, depicting Jesus as a revolutionary figure and encouraging Catholics to fight against governments that the movement's followers believed hurt the poor.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Benedict -- led the Vatican's campaign to wipe out the movement, which he said replaced the church's spiritual role with misplaced socioeconomic activism. As pope, he has continued to stress a traditional approach: In October, he approved a denunciation of the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a proponent of liberation theology in El Salvador.

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