By JOHN L. ALEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil
Though part of the unspoken logic for Benedict XVI’s trip to Brazil is to offset Catholic losses to Pentecostalism, now estimated at almost 20 million Brazilians and growing, political realities in the country on issues such as abortion and gay marriage in some sense make the Pentecostals the pope's best friends.
Such are the ironies of life in Latin America.
Under current Brazilian law, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or when a woman’s life is at risk. Nevertheless, there are thought to be somewhere between a million and two million “clandestine” abortions in the country each year, and the Brazilian Minister of Health, Jose Gomes Temporao, has floated the idea of widening the scope of legal abortion.
Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a Catholic, has said that he is personally opposed to abortion, but that “the state cannot abdicate from caring for this as a public health question, because to do so would lead to the death of many young women in this country.”
On the papal plane on the way to Brazil, Benedict XVI seemed to indicate that Catholic politicians who support expanding abortion rights should be considered excommunicated under the terms of Canon Law.
During his remarks to Lula at the welcoming ceremony at the São Paulo airport, Benedict called for “respect for life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature.”
That’s where the Pentecostals come into play.
Of all the political and social forces in Brazil, it’s the Pentecostals who are most likely to be receptive to Benedict’s pro-life message. They are not an inconsiderable force in Brazil’s political galaxy; at the moment, the Pentecostal “block” in the national legislature represents about 10 percent of the total, roughly 60 members. While the Pentecostals come from different parties and hold different positions on issues such as tax policy and international relations, they are compactly in favor of conservative positions on social questions such as abortion.
While some Pentecostal legislators and ministers were damaged by corruption scandals in 2005 and 2006, they still represent a potent political force in the country.
The Vice-President of Brazil, who was Lula’s running mate in the 2002 national elections, José Alencar, is a member of the Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and is perhaps the most prominent pro-life member of the administration. It will be Alencar who will say goodbye to Benedict on the country’s behalf Sunday evening when the pope departs from São Paulo.
Thus Benedict XVI, as well as local Catholic leaders, face a dilemma in terms of how they relate to what have until recently been know, pejoratively, as “the sects.”
On the one hand, the Catholic church clearly hopes to stop the attrition towards Pentecostalism, and, if possible, recapture some lost ground. That’s part of the implied subtext whenever Benedict and other Catholic leaders call for a renewed commitment to “evangelization.”
Yet Benedict does not want to alienate the Pentecostals either, because on a range of issues, they are his best natural allies.
“It’s not just the specific question of abortion or homosexuality,” one Brazilian journalist explained today. “It’s the broader question of the ‘religiousness’ of Brazil. If the pope had to rely just on the Catholics, the country would actually be much secularized than it already is.”
How Benedict walks this tightrope – promoting healthy competition for adherents, but also fostering strong working relationships at the level of political and cultural debates – may have a great deal to say about the future of Catholic/Pentecostal relations in Latin America.
In the end, one of the ironies of the pope’s Brazil trip may turn out to be that, having come to Brazil to encourage Catholics to resist Pentecostalism, his battle against the dictatorship of relativism may actually usher in a new era of Catholic/Pentecostal “good feelings" instead.