Pope stirs up row over abortion on visit to Brazil

Posted in Religion and Politics | 11-May-07 | Author: Peter Popham| Source: The Independent (UK)

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) and Pope Benedict XVI smile during a meeting at Bandeirantes Palace, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Pope Benedict XVI has touched down in the most populous Catholic country in the world in what had been billed as an attempt to shore up the mass of the faithful against desertions to evangelical churches and threats from the supposedly subversive liberation theology.

But yesterday, as he addressed crowds of children in São Paolo and met Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, his agenda had already been swept aside by an abortion controversy stirred up on his flight over.

The 80-year-old Bavarian theologian, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had never given a press conference since becoming the Pope two years ago, but he ensured his debut before the media would not quickly be forgotten.

The background to the hullaballoo was the recent vote by Mexico's parliament to legalise abortion. An Italian reporter on the plane asked the Pope whether he agreed that Catholic MPs in Mexico City who voted for legalisation should be considered excommunicated. The Pope replied: "Yes. The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the [canon law] code. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going in Communion with the body of Christ. Thus, they [the bishops] did not do anything new or surprising, or arbitrary."

The Rev John Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, flatly contradicted the Pope, saying there was no provision in canon law which stated that Catholic politicians who voted to legalise abortion automatically excommunicated themselves.

The Pope's spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said the Pope was not making new policy in his remarks, and that formal excommunication of offending politicians - a complicated and rare procedure distinct from the doctrine of "self-excommunication" - was not on the cards. But he endorsed the main drift of the Pope's words. "Legislative action in favour of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist," he said. Politicians who vote that way, he went on, "exclude themselves from Communion".

It was a reprise of the tough line against liberal politicians first adopted by the Pope in the case of the American Catholic senator and former presidential contender John Kerry. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, the question of whether Mr Kerry should receive Communion became a hot issue after more than a dozen American bishops said they would not give him communion because he had voted for abortion. A task force of American bishops was set up to look into the question, and its head, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, received a letter from the Pope on the issue. At a meeting in June, Cardinal McCarrick said the Pope's letter allowed for flexibility.

But subsequently it became clear that Cardinal McCarrick had been economical with the truth. The full text of the Pope's letter was published in Italy a couple of weeks later. "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war or applying the death penalty but not however with regard to abortion or euthanasia," he wrote. "Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal co-operation [with the sin] becomes manifest" - in other words, when a Catholic politician actively campaigns in favour of these "grave sins" - "he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin".

On arrival at São Paolo, Benedict was greeted by President Da Silva, who is himself in the middle of a row over abortion. It is illegal in Brazil, but the Health minister, Dr José Gomes Temporão, called for a referendum on the issue in March - precipitating a protest march in Brasilia on Tuesday. MrDa Silva said that, while opposed to abortion, he believed that "the state cannot abdicate from caring for this as a public health question, because to do so would lead to the deaths of many young women in this country".

Dr Temporão said that abortion was "a theme that should be treated delicately". He said "some sectors of the church have made declarations that are very aggressive and quite distant from the teachings of Jesus".

But, as soon as the Pope arrived on Brazilian soil he reverted to the favourite theme. The Catholic church, he said, "will not fail to insist on the need to take action to ensure that the family, the basic cell of society, is strengthened". He insisted on the need to promote "respect for human life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature".

After the Pope's words, Dr Temporão abruptly cancelled a planned meeting with him. "You cannot prescribe dogmas and precepts from one particular religion for the whole of society," he declared angrily. "This is a fundamental matter. In Brazil, the state and the church have been separate for centuries."

Brazil's first native saint

Today Pope Benedict XVI will make a little known 18th-century monk a saint and in doing so give Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, its first native-born saint.

Every day in Sao Paulo, pilgrims queue at the shrine of Antonio de Sant'Ana Galvao, better known as Friar Galvao, hoping to be cured from terminal diseases thanks to his all-powerful "miracle pills".

The pills contain a tiny prayer to the Virgin Mary on rice paper and according to the authorities in the monastery where the pills are administered, 8,057 prayers have been answered since he was beatified.

The Vatican recognises two of Galvao's miracles, a requirement for sainthood. In 1990, a girl aged four recovered from incurable hepatitis, and in 1999 a mother and child survived a high-risk birth in what the Vatican called a "scientifically inexplicable" case. Galvao, who lived from 1739 to 1822, founded monasteries and convents throughout Brazil.