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Brazil-bound pope denounces legalization of abortion

Times Staff Writer

Launching his first papal pilgrimage to the Americas, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday issued a strong condemnation of abortion and immediately touched off a firestorm by suggesting Catholic politicians who legalize it have excommunicated themselves from the church.

The flap began hours before his plane even touched down here, when he spoke to reporters in flight from Rome during his first full-fledged news conference as pontiff.

Asked whether he agreed with excommunication of Mexican legislators who recently legalized abortion in Mexico City, Benedict replied, “Yes.”

“The excommunication was not something arbitrary,” he continued. “It is part of the Code [of Canon Law]. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with being in Communion with the body of Christ. Thus, [the bishops] didn’t do anything new or anything surprising, or arbitrary.”

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As the flight continued, the pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, made several appearances of his own before the reporters in an attempt to downplay Benedict’s statement. Roman Catholic church leaders in Mexico have not actually excommunicated the legislators, Lombardi noted, and said that the pope meant that politicians who favor abortion rights in effect excommunicate themselves and should be denied Communion, a milder sanction. Benedict did not mean to set new policy, Lombardi said.

“If the bishops haven’t excommunicated anyone, it’s not that the pope wants to,” Lombardi said. “Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. Politicians exclude themselves from Communion.”

Later, after arriving in Brazil, the largest Catholic nation in the world, Benedict made further strong remarks about abortion.

Speaking under drizzly leaden skies after being greeted by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the pope said he was confident that Brazilians will protect “values that are radically Christian,” including respect for “life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature.”

Lula welcomed the pope in a small ceremony inside a cavernous military airport hangar in this city, the first stop as Benedict seeks to confront a continent whose once-universal Catholicism has been eroded and whose church is profoundly divided. At the Benedictine monastery where the pope is staying, hundreds of people chanted his name and kept vigil late into the night. But others, including politicians in Mexico City who voted to legalize first-trimester abortions, appeared stung by the pope’s in-flight remarks.

Excommunication, which bars the person from receiving sacraments and participating in public worship, is the church’s most severe punishment, while “self-excommunication” is a less onerous category.

The issue of punishment for Catholic politicians who legislate in ways that conflict with church belief is a debate that has raged for years. Ordering excommunication for Catholic politicians would also have tremendous ramifications in the United States. Although some priests have decided to deny Communion to politicians who favor abortion rights, such punishment has never been a blanket Vatican policy, which is why Benedict’s com-ments had such impact and his aides appeared so intent on softening them.

The confusion over what the pope said versus what he meant raised questions about whether Benedict was speaking as supreme pontiff, a leader whose very words establish policy, or in effect as the church’s top enforcer of doctrine -- the job he had held as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for more than two decades.

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In Mexico City, Catholic legislators who approved the abortion law accused the pope of mixing religion with the law-making process.

“I did my duty as a legislator and as a woman,” said Leticia Quezada, one of the law’s chief backers. “I voted to address a crisis of public health.... I will continue to be a believer. The church has no right to interfere in my conscience.”

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who signed the law on April 26, said his government would continue to enforce the legislation. “I would simply and very frankly add,” he said, “that we are in the 21st century and not the 16th century.”

Abortion, which is illegal, and common, in Brazil, is one of several potentially divisive issues that the pope will face during his five-day visit, when he will also open a major conference of Latin American bishops and canonize Brazil’s first native-born saint.

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The pilgrimage to Brazil will give the pope his first major test: whether he can reach a non-European crowd full of faithful Catholics who may respect the pontiff but who are unsure he has their concerns at heart. Many see the German-born theologian as aloof to their poverty and unrealistic in his demands for orthodoxy.

Speaking to reporters on the 12-hour flight to Sao Paulo, the pope denied that he had neglected this part of the world, saying other pressing matters like war in the Middle East had until now taken priority.

“I love Latin America,” he said.

The pope has previously spoken to journalists traveling with him and answered pre-selected, screened questions. But on Wednesday, he took about a dozen spontaneous queries from journalists. Flanked by aides, he stood for 25 minutes under a fasten-your-seat-belt sign in the rear cabin where the journalists were seated and responded in Italian to questions that came in Italian, Portuguese, German and Spanish.

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Touching on another potential friction point, he also responded to questions about liberation theology, a leftist interpretation of Christianity that emphasizes working for the poor and that was also highly politicized. As Ratzinger, he led the crackdown against its proponents, most of whom were in Latin America. Yet the doctrine remains popular in parts of Brazil, especially at the grass-roots level.

Benedict said followers of liberation theology were “mistaken” but that condemning them does not mean a lessening in the church’s commitment to social justice.

The pope acknowledged that his message was often falling on deaf ears, here and elsewhere.

“It is not just a problem in Brazil -- there are many people who don’t want to listen,” he said. “We have to become more dynamic.”

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He said his priority in Brazil will be to examine ways to shore up Catholic identity in this often secular and religiously folkloric region and stanch the exodus of followers to Pentecostal and other Protestant evangelical denominations.

Brazil, he said, “will become the cradle of the ecclesial proposals that, with God’s help, will give renewed vigor and missionary impetus to this continent.”

How to go about it, however, will be another point of wide disagreement during the pope’s visit, especially at the bishops conference.

Conservatives who have been in ascendancy in the church leadership for more than a decade, and who have Benedict’s ear, want to see more pious Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday and inject the word of God into their daily lives. Liberals, who still have a large following in Latin America, want the church to give more emphasis to social justice.

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“The reason the church has lost so many Catholics, especially in Brazil, is also because of the failure to speak of Jesus Christ and instead emphasize social themes,” said Father Mariano Fazio, an Argentine member of the Vatican delegation to the bishops conference and a rector at a Rome university run by the conservative Opus Dei organization.

“People are looking for spiritual fulfillment, so they turn to the sects.”

Yet others say the answer is in even greater social activism.

In a tough-worded letter circulated ahead of the conference, a bishop from Lima, Peru, accused his fellow prelates of “ecclesiastic myopia” in failing to push their ministries into modern-world realities.

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“We cannot continue with the same pastoral methods of a society that no longer exists,” Bishop Norberto Strotmann wrote. “We cannot continue with anachronistic ecclesiastical forms that no longer speak to the faithful.”

In the streets of Sao Paulo on Wednesday, such splits in opinion also followed the pope.

Zelia Thomaz Soares said she waited three hours in the St. Benedict plaza near where the pope was staying in hopes of catching a glimpse. She admires his conservatism.

“I would say he’s very radical, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “He is a visible representation of Jesus on Earth.”

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Later today, other Brazilians will be staging demonstrations at a cathedral here and in 11 other cities to protest against Benedict’s abortion position.

“We are Catholics, we were baptized, and so we feel comfortable diverging from the church’s position,” said Yury Puello, one of the organizers.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Sao Paulo and Hector Tobar and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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