SAO PAULO, Brazil—Pope Benedict XVI kicked off a historic five-day visit to Brazil on Wednesday by sending a tough anti-abortion message that sparked a hemisphere-wide debate over the Roman Catholic Church's efforts to influence politicians.
In answer to a question about Mexico City's recent legalization of abortion, Benedict indicated that he would support Mexican bishops if they were to decide to excommunicate lawmakers who voted for the law.
"It is part of the code," Benedict said, according to reporters aboard the plane. "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."
The Vatican quickly clarified the pope's remarks, saying that he may have inferred from the question that Mexico's bishops had already taken action against the lawmakers, which they hadn't.
But the seeming support for excommunicating Catholic politicians who buck the church on abortion overshadowed Benedict's arrival in Sao Paulo on his first trip outside Europe since he became pope in 2005.
Benedict wasted no time in returning to the abortion issue after arriving at Sao Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport, where he was greeted by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other officials.
"I know the soul of this people, as with in all of Latin America, preserves the radically Christian values that will never be canceled," the pope said in Portuguese. He went on to champion "the respect for human life, from its conception to its natural decline."
The pope will meet Lula again Thursday morning at Sao Paulo state's governor's mansion, where, Brazilian bishops say, he'll press a political agenda that includes strengthening religious instruction in schools and taking a harder stance against abortion.
Lula, who's been under fire from Catholic officials recently for his abortion rights support, didn't comment on the pope's remarks. In a radio interview Monday, he said that while he was against abortion personally, he favored "a good family planning process of sexual education (so that) possibly we wouldn't have the quantity of undesired pregnancies that we have today."
Excommunication is the church's harshest form of punishment. An excommunicated Catholic cannot receive communion or other sacraments.
Reaction from Catholic politicians who support abortion rights was swift throughout North and South America.
In Washington, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a Catholic, acidly compared the pope's comment to the church's record of protecting priests accused of sexually abusing children.
"I've always thought also that those bishops and archbishops who for decades hid pederasts and are now being protected by the Vatican should be indicted," he said.
A spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was more cautious, noting that Kerry's Catholic faith had been thoroughly discussed during his failed 2004 presidential election campaign.
"We'd all be better off if issues like poverty, just war and the whole cloth of Catholic teachings had been discussed as well," said Amy Brundage, Kerry's press secretary. "Senator Kerry believes in a woman's right to privacy, and he continues to believe in his faith, which sustains him."
In Mexico City, a legislator who voted to legalize abortion said the pope's remark would shake neither her faith nor her support of abortion rights.
"I am religious, I am Catholic and I will continue being one," said Leticia Quezada, a member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, which supported the abortion bill. "I continue believing in God but not the institution of the church."
Latin American Catholics read the remark as a stern start to what they said will be the pope's campaign in the region to emphasize traditional religious values in the face of sweeping social changes.
Benedict comes to Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country, as the church rapidly loses influence. A poll of more than 46,000 Brazilians by the research firm Datafolha found that the number of Catholics had dropped from 89 percent in 1980 to 64 percent this year. Meanwhile, adherents to Protestant denominations had grown to 22 percent of the population, with Pentecostal congregations seeing the biggest gains.
Brazilian critics said the church's hard stance on abortion, contraception and other social issues is driving away Catholics and fueling the rise of Pentecostal congregations in Latin America.
The poll found that 94 percent of Brazilian Catholics support the use of contraception and more than 70 percent support the right to divorce, despite church policy opposing both practices. Only a quarter of Brazilian Catholics, however, support legalizing abortion in cases other than rape or when a woman's life is at risk, as Brazilian law permits.
"When the pope emphasizes these policies and tries to make secular states adopt them, he speaks only for a specific group of the church," said Dulce Xavier, a member of an advocacy group representing Brazilian Catholics who support abortion rights.
"As the head of the Catholic Church, he should be open to the dialogue that the faithful bring forward, but the church's hierarchy is not opening itself to that dialogue."
Despite the controversy, church leaders said they were optimistic that the pope's visit would turn around the church's drop in numbers. Nearly half of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America.
Many have questioned whether Benedict, a conservative who's made reviving European Catholicism a top issue, would connect with Latin American Catholics. Many here had rooted for former Sao Paulo Archbishop Claudio Hummes to be elected to the pontificate in 2005.
Sao Paulo police officer Marcos de Mello, a Catholic, had no such reservations and said the papal visit would boost Brazilian Catholics. Pope John Paul II was the last pope to visit Brazil, in 1997.
"This will bring more strength to us Catholics and help people restore their belief," the 34-year-old said. "The other churches have only been growing because Catholics are leaving. We need the pope to remind us again that we are a Catholic country."
So far, the visit appeared to be succeeding, judging by the boisterous crowds that greeted the pope as he traveled in his bulletproof popemobile from the airport to the St. Benedict monastery in the heart of this 20 million-person metropolis.
The pope delivered a quick blessing from the monastery's balcony to the euphoric crowd.
The pope's agenda in Brazil includes a youth rally at the Pacaembu stadium Thursday night, the canonization of Brazil's first native-born saint Friday morning, a visit to a Catholic drug treatment center Saturday morning in the town of Guaratingueta, about 100 miles from Sao Paulo, and the opening of a once-a-decade conference Sunday of Latin American and Caribbean bishops in the adjacent town of Aparecida.
The abortion issue is likely to dog the papal visit, however.
On Tuesday, Catholic and Protestant leaders held an anti-abortion rally in Brasilia, Brazil's capital, to protest the position of Lula's health minister, Jose Gomes Temporao, who's called for a nationwide referendum on liberalized abortion laws.
Temporao said Wednesday that he wanted to "remove this discussion from the ethical, religious, philosophical area and from fundamentalism and bring it to the real area of pain, death and suffering."
Catholic leaders denounced that position.
"I would like the Health Ministry to be in favor of life and not of death," said Angelico Sandal Bernardino, an archbishop from southern Brazil.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents William Douglas and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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