SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s hard-nosed defence of traditional teachings on his first visit to Latin America inspired conservatives but critics said he was out of touch with reality in a region where the Church is losing influence and followers.
The 80-year-old Pope railed against premarital sex, abortion rights and the rise of Pentecostalism during his five days in Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.
To expand the Church, bishops must return to traditional proselytizing and resist temptations to offer flashy services to young people or support leftist politics in a region plagued by poverty, he said.
Conservatives commended the Pope for restoring purity to the Church’s principles, even if it meant alienating potential newcomers. His detractors called him hopelessly out of touch in a time of globalization, gay marriage and AIDS.
“The Catholic population in Latin America will continue to disagree with church norms that are impossible to put into practice — like not using condoms or having premarital sex,” said Maria Jose Rosado-Nunes, professor of sociology at Sao Paulo’s Catholic University.
Brazil’s government hands out millions of free condoms each year to help prevent the spread of AIDS under a program lauded by the United Nations. The Catholic Church tells young people they should practice abstinence — a stance critics call dangerous and unrealistic.
“The position of the Church on the use of condoms is criminal,” Fernando de Barros e Silva, a columnist for the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, said on Monday.
The Pope’s efforts to reinforce traditional values could push even more people out of the Church in Latin America, home to almost half of the world’s Catholics, but conservatives said commitment to the Church’s roots is more important than the number of faithful.
“He doesn’t worry about a marketing strategy that will greatly increase the number of Catholics, but instead a qualitative improvement in the fidelity to Church teachings,” the conservative newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo said in an editorial.
Most bishops said the Pope, who ended his visit on Sunday night, correctly upheld long-established Church positions and that his message, though stern, was one of peace and love.
“Nothing that the Pope said should be interpreted as arm twisting, but instead as a kiss for Latin America,” said Bishop Antonio Celso Queiroz of Sao Paulo state.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who met the Pope twice during his stay, avoided discussing the sensitive issue of abortion rights but liked his message about fighting poverty.
“The Pope showed a great amount of concern about the social problems of Brazil, and he spoke out on several occasions against criminality, violence, and the social abandonment to which the poor of the world are subjected,” Lula said in his weekly radio address on Monday.
“So I think his behaviour was very dignified, and I would say it was beneficial for us, the Brazilian people.”
Additional reporting by Carmen Munari and Todd Benson