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In his first trip outside Europe, Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Brazil, which has the largest population of Catholics of any country in the world (more than 145 million members). In recent years, Brazil has been drifting from its predominantly Catholic views and has seen declining membership in its congregations.
The pontiff’s demeanor on this tour—what is said and how it is said—may shape how Latin America views him and whether he is able to bring the region back into the Catholic fold. If the pope’s message is received well there—if he is able to squelch the problems within the churches—then the rest of Latin America may follow suit.
During the first few days of his trip, Pope Benedict met with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, canonized the first Brazilian-born saint, and addressed a stadium filled with thousands of youth. He also presided over an outdoor mass and is scheduled to make the opening comments at the fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The conference, which is one of the main points of the pope’s visit, will address and outline a plan to tackle some of the greater concerns facing the Catholic presence in the country: dwindling membership and congregations, due to the rise of Protestantism; and the move toward a more liberal mindset, particularly in regard to birth control, abortion and homosexual rights. Another problem Rome must contend with is that there are not enough clergy to maintain a traditional form of church hierarchy or help to stop the decline.
Many are leaving the Catholic Church to attend evangelical churches, due to their attraction to the upbeat music, the animated speaking and the more casual environment. Some Catholic churches are beginning to adopt several of these “charismatic” elements—in stark contrast to traditional Catholic services—and this is helping to slow the exodus to Protestant congregations.
In addition, there exists a deep-seated movement within the Roman church. Called “liberal theology,” it combines politics and religion into one, viewing Christ as a revolutionary and calling for followers to make societal changes through political involvement, with some even resorting to violence. When he served under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) condemned the movement as Marxist, saying it was incompatible with Catholic doctrine.
Despite some loss of Catholic influence in Brazil, citizens are still thrilled to have the pope visiting their country, though some have reservations. Pope Benedict is seen by some as being “too conservative” and much more reserved than his predecessor, John Paul, who was known to be personable and would tour the impoverished areas of the countries he visited.
During the first half of his Latin American visit, Benedict drew large crowds. He canonized the first Brazilian saint before an audience of more than a million onlookers. In a stadium filled with thousands of young people, the pope watched as dancers performed traditional Brazilian dances. At one point, five young people came on stage and gave the pontiff hugs.
But the ceremony was not all dancing and games, as the pope touched upon topics affecting teens and young adults and much of Latin America. Benedict stressed that the youth “avoid snares of evil,” abstain from premarital sex, and he condemned abortion, urging people to respect life from “its beginning to natural end.”
However, there have been protests to the pontiff’s visit. Women’s groups wielded posters outside the largest churches in 12 Brazilian cities, asking, “Catholics have sex for pleasure, use condoms, support sexual diversity and don’t condemn women for having abortions. When will the Church hierarchy change?” Also, the Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals published an open letter demanding that the nation become a solely secular state and enact more laws accepting their lifestyles.
In recent years, Catholic congregations in Brazil have been swiftly declining as the country adopts many ideas imported from America and Europe. The Catholic Church has lost about 16% of its members in the country since 1991, according to the World Christian Database. The same is happening in most of Latin America, which is home to half of the 1.1 billion Catholics across the globe. Even without officially leaving the Roman Church, mindsets and political views are changing all across the region.
For example, the Mexico City legislature voted overwhelmingly to legalize first-term abortions for the metropolitan region, despite vehement protests from pro-life groups and a letter of reprimand from Pope Benedict. Earlier in the year, the capital city’s legislature also legalized same-sex civil unions.
This issue of abortion has clouded much of the pope’s journey to Brazil. During his flight, he was asked how he viewed the actions of the Mexican priests who said that the politicians who voted to legalize abortion in Mexico City could no longer commune with the church body any longer. The pontiff agreed.
It is difficult to know how Pope Benedict will react to out-and-out defection from Catholic belief and traditions. As Cardinal Ratzinger he was a known as a “firebrand” who stood firm on doctrine and made bold statements. Since becoming pope, however, he has stepped back and chosen his words judicially and has preached mainly on “safe” issues—love and faith.
Yet, he still does speak directly when touching on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriages and infidelity in marriage.
While visiting the heart of the Latin American region, the pope faces many hot button issues. If Brazilian lay members refuse to obey, if the problems in the region cannot be attended to, what will this mean for the Catholic Church?
The pope has a tight-rope act to walk. If he demands strict obedience, Catholics in Latin America may continue to flock to other Churches, or leave religion altogether. But if he continues with gentle prods alone he may end up making no impact at all.
Not only will how Benedict handles these issues likely shape events in Latin America for years to come, it may also be a glimpse as to how the pontiff will react to future disobedience of church doctrine for the Catholic Church as a whole.