APARECIDA, Brazil—Pope Benedict XVI concluded his visit to the world's biggest Roman Catholic country Sunday by warning against "authoritarian forms of government" and calling on Catholics to reinvigorate the church.
Speaking in Spanish to more than 160 Latin American and Caribbean bishops, the 80-year-old pontiff denounced both Marxism and capitalism and defended the Roman Catholic Church's often-bloody campaign to Christianize indigenous people.
His hour-long speech contained the lengthiest and most pointed remarks of the pope's five-day visit, and it was meant as a guide to the region's bishops as they begin a 19-day conference on the church's future in the region.
At the top of their agenda will be halting the exodus of millions of Catholics from the church over the past two decades, a challenge the pope referred to while urging the bishops to fight "secularism, hedonism, indifferentism and proselytism by numerous sects." Catholic leaders often refer to Latin America's booming Pentecostal congregations as "sects."
Benedict's most political remarks appeared to be aimed at the region's new generation of leftist leaders, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who've been accused of ruling autocratically.
"In Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in other regions," the pope said, "there has been notable progress towards democracy, although there are grounds for concern in the face of authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded, and which do not respond to the Christian vision of man and society as taught by the social doctrine of the church."
Echoing the words of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict said "the Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit."
The pope appeared to criticize indigenous leaders such as Morales, an Aymara Indian, by denouncing the revival of native religions. Since he took office early last year, Morales has given native beliefs a higher public profile and threatened to eliminate Catholic instruction from the country's schools. Peru has South America's largest indigenous population.
"The utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbus religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal church, would not be a step forward," the pope said. "Indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past."
A Morales spokesman said that no one was available Sunday to comment on the pope's remarks.
Peruvian bishop Hector Miguel Vidarte, the head of his country's delegation to the conference, defended the pope's stand, saying the church had a duty to "purify" people of such beliefs.
"I don't think people act in bad faith, but they hold lots of different beliefs such as worshiping the earth or animals, things that are pretty primitive," Vidarte said. "For us, the Catholic heritage is a present."
The pope also tackled some issues dear to Latin American leftists who oppose the free market reforms of the 1990s.
While praising "the phenomenon of globalization" as a sign of people's "profound aspiration towards unity," Benedict warned that "it also undoubtedly brings with it the risk of vast monopolies and of treating profit as the supreme value."
The pope assailed modern "ethical relativism" and "civil legislation opposed to marriage which, by supporting contraception and abortion, is threatening the future of peoples."
The German-born pope sparked a hemisphere-wide debate Wednesday when he told reporters that legislators who voted last month to legalize abortion in Mexico City deserved to be excommunicated.
He's also defended the church's opposition to divorce and contraception and criticized liberation theology, an influential movement in Latin America that stresses using religion for social change.
Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, one of liberation theology's leading proponents in Brazil, said the Vatican should open itself to more debate, especially on reproductive health matters.
"There should be a dialogue with science to see where faith and science agree," Casaldaliga said. "There's no danger in looking at these issues with a more scientific eye."
According to religious scholars, Benedict's solution for the decline of Catholic influence in Latin America and Europe is a return to church orthodoxy.
"This is a pope who does not believe in challenging tradition," said Lisias Nogueira Negrao, an expert in Brazilian religiosity. "He sees returning the church and society to its religious roots as the answer."
While Brazil claims more Roman Catholics—about 125 million—than any other country, surveys have found that millions of them are leaving the church.
On Sunday morning, only a third of the 500,000 people anticipated by church officials attended an open-air Mass led by the pope in front of the city's massive basilica, known as the world's largest devoted to the Virgin Mary.
Those who showed up nearly filled the basilica's sprawling parking lot and showed the kind of high-decibel, flag-waving enthusiasm that's greeted the pope all week. Benedict returned Sunday night to the city of Sao Paulo, where he began his visit. He's due to return to Rome around noon on Monday.
"He's blessed many people this week," said Norma Batista dos Santos, 25, a nanny who came to Aparecida Sunday from Sao Paulo to see the pope. "A lot of people in Brazil are outside the church and don't know God, but he called them back."
Speaking in Portuguese, Benedict urged the crowd to intensify its faith, which he said would attract others to the church. "Be faithful disciples, so as to be courageous and effective missionaries," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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