Pope Cites Church's Regional Challenges

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 14, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 13 -- Pope Benedict XVI concluded his first visit to Latin America on Sunday by urging a stronger Catholic presence in a region with social problems that he said both Marxism and capitalism had only exacerbated, and he warned against further damage from "authoritarian" governments.

The pope opened a 19-day conference of Latin American bishops, aiming to set an agenda to steer the church through regional challenges that Benedict identified during his five-day trip: the loss of thousands of members each day, the rapid expansion of Protestant churches in an area once dominated by Catholicism and a trend toward secularism.

The pope warned the bishops against tainting core religious principles with political ideology, but he did not shy from touching upon political themes in his hour-long speech. Experimentation with Marxism in the region had sown human, economic and ecological misery, he said, and rampant capitalism that followed in some places had widened gaps between rich and poor. He also suggested that some governments are drifting from core Catholic principles.

A return to Catholic values, he suggested, was the answer to lingering social and economic problems.

"In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in other regions, there has been an evolution toward democracy," Benedict said, "although there is cause to worry about authoritarian forms of government and regimes tied to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded, and which do not correspond to the Christian vision of man and society as taught by the social doctrine of the church."

The pope did not specify which governments he had in mind.

Some church leaders have criticized the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who regularly claims Jesus as a socialist and in January criticized a local archbishop for living too luxuriously, saying that the head of the country's Catholic Church was destined for hell. Governments from Mexico to Chile have recently gone against church strictures on subjects including abortion and contraceptives.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, of Aymara Indian heritage, also sparred with local church officials last year when his government proposed replacing Catholic religious instruction in public schools with a program that included indigenous spiritual beliefs. The Bolivian government eventually withdrew the plan in what it said was an amicable agreement with the church.

Benedict addressed such efforts to revive pre-Colombian religions during his speech to the bishops, saying that the introduction of Christianity to the region 500 years ago built upon existing cultures to create something new. Trying to separate that influence now would represent a "step backward," he asserted.

The bishop's conference is held roughly once a decade, and the pope had requested it be held in Brazil -- the largest Catholic country in the world, and a place where many of the church's challenges can be seen most clearly. As adherence to Catholicism has decreased by about 1 percent a year since 1980, Protestantism has more than doubled. The Vatican estimates that Protestant pastors outnumber Catholic priests by 2 to 1, powering what Benedict last week called "the aggressive proselytization of the sects."

On Sunday, he urged the clergy to occupy a more prominent cultural and political platform within a region where most residents are born into Catholic families, but where rates of active participation in the church remain low.

The pope's message to the bishops was consistent with his public sermons, in which he emphasized the importance of traditional moral codes in being a good Catholic. To the bishops, he stressed that simple faith and adherence to essential sacramental and liturgical guidelines are prerequisites that must be met before pursuing the church's goals of social service.

In a region where poverty is a fact of life, the Vatican and local church officials have not always agreed on the best way to define its social service role. Latin America is the cradle of liberation theology, a movement that took root in the 1960s and 1970s and that considered Jesus a revolutionary figure and argued that the church should give a "preferential option for the poor." In the 1980s, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led a Vatican denunciation of the movement as interpreting the world through a Marxist lens instead of a religious one. The movement has since been weakened, but its influence on the church's social agenda is still obvious in Latin America, particularly in Brazil.

According to local church officials here, the pope seemed to acknowledge that influence during his speeches. He described the poor as the "privileged audience for the Gospel."

The crowds that the pope drew during his visit were large, but not overwhelming by Brazilian standards. His largest event -- an outdoor Mass on Friday morning -- drew 600,000 to 800,000, short of the 1 million expected. Sunday's Mass in Aparecida, about 100 miles from Sao Paulo, also drew a far smaller crowd than the half-million expected.

In contrast, police estimated that an annual parade organized by evangelical Protestant churches last year drew 1 million, a gay pride parade in Sao Paulo drew about 3 million, and a free Rolling Stones concert in Rio de Janeiro last year drew an estimated 1.5 million spectators.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company