Brazil: A Pope from Latin America's Catholic Powerhouse?
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Brazil: A Pope from Latin America's Catholic Powerhouse?

By Kenneth Rapoza

Catholicism is to Brazil what Protestantism is to the United States. Each boasts the largest number of followers in its respective country. Catholics from Portugal colonized Brazil in the 1500s and ultimately turned it into the world's Catholic stronghold, with an estimated 151.2 million Catholics, according to a BBC Brasil report using new Vatican data soon to be released.

Only Italy has a larger percentage of Catholics.

Although there is no official state religion in Brazil, Catholicism and its symbols are central to political and social life. It is commonplace to see images of political leaders going about their daily business with a large crucifix hanging on the wall of their government office--an image that would prompt lawsuits in the United States.

Regionally, Latin America has more Catholics than anywhere in the world. And so for this reason, those speculating on who the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be point to four Latin American cardinals, including Brazil's Cardinal Claudio Hummes, as the top contenders before the conclave. The 22-strong group of Latin American cardinals in the conclave--out of a total of 117 voting cardinals--is the biggest regional bloc outside Europe. Hummes is the archbishop of Sao Paulo, the Catholic Church's largest diocese.

On April 3, the Financial Times' Brazil-based editor, Richard Lapper, wrote that a "Latin American moment" is a possibility, thanks to two main advantages. First, church doctrine has deep roots. Abortion is illegal as is gay marriage in all countries except for Argentina. Second, Latin America offers lessons for the Vatican that could be especially important as the church faces up to the advance of Islam and the spread of Protestant evangelicalism in the region. There are more than 50 million evangelical churchgoers south of Texas, compared to just two million adherents back in 1960, Lapper reported. Most of them are in Brazil.

Upon Cardinal Hummes's arrival in Rome after Pope John Paul II's death, reporters asked the 70-year-old Franciscan to express his thoughts on the possibility of being elected pope. He said he wanted to be attentive to Pope John Paul II's funeral Mass and not speculate on the future papacy. "South American, African or other, that's not the principal criterion. We are all here before God. Anyone of us can be the next pontiff," ANSA newswire reported Hummes as saying.

Hummes first met Pope John Paul II in 1978, where they spoke informally and reminisced about their days working as laborers. In his first years as bishop, Hummes opposed the military government that took over Brazil during the Cold War. He allowed union leaders to make political speeches at Mass. When industrialists asked him to mediate in strike negotiations, he refused, saying the church had to take the side of the workers. On becoming archbishop of Sao Paulo in January 2005, Hummes succeeded Latin American human-rights activist Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, but he is not considered to be cut from the same activist cloth as Arns.

Hummes has said that his concern for the poor, while dictated by the Gospels, was hard to separate from politics. He has criticized Brazilian government policies, but has also spoken out against the Landless Rural Workers Movement, known by their acronym MST, a controversial grassroots organization of poor unemployed workers that invades farmlands to pressure the government to give land to the poor.

A poll by Brazilian media giant O Globo showed 37 percent of the respondents saying the next pope will come from Europe, compared to 33 percent thinking he will come from Latin America. The country's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, appears to be an unabashed Hummes supporter. According to an April 9 O Globo editorial, while in Rome for the pope's funeral, Lula told reporters: "I've already spoken with Father Claudio today. He and all of the Brazilian cardinals are probably thinking about what is going to take place in the next few days. It must be a difficult task. When it comes to these things, it's best for people just to keep quiet. Obviously I would be one of the most happiest human beings alive to see Father Claudio elected pope."

In a feature on the top papal contenders in the newsweekly Epoca, Father Alberto Libanio Christo, better known throughout Brazil as Frei Beto, a populist left-wing religious figure during the Cold War who now has ready access to the corridors of power in Brazil, recalled the pope's first visit in 1980. "He descended from an Army helicopter in Sao Paulo and met with labor leaders."

While the pope had a close relationship with Brazilian church leaders, German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and another strong contender for pope, has had a contentious relationship with the country's activist clergy. Epoca reported that Ratzinger has long been an outspoken critic of the Liberation Theology movement that swept through the region in the last decades of the 20th century. He censored Franciscan friar and liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in 1984. Ratzinger ordered Boff to spend a year in "obsequious silence," during which he was forbidden to speak publicly or publish his views. Ratzinger got Boff's 1987 book, "Trinity and Society," banned in Italy. In 1991, Boff was forced to step down as editor of the Catholic book publishers, Vozes, and in the following year was barred from speaking in public. He left the priesthood on May 26, 1992.

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