In Brazil, pope delivers anti-abortion message

Vatican hastens to soften approval of harshest punishment

May 10, 2007|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Beginning his first papal pilgrimage to the Americas, Pope Benedict XVI issued a strong condemnation yesterday of abortion and set off a firestorm by suggesting that Catholic politicians who legalize it have excommunicated themselves from the church.

Pope Benedict arrived in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, and confronted a continent whose once-universal Catholicism has been eroded and whose church is profoundly divided.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva welcomed the pope in a small ceremony inside a cavernous military airport hangar. At the Benedictine monastery where the pope is staying, hundreds of people chanted his name and kept vigil late into the night.

In his opening remarks, the pope urged a more determined fight against abortion. He said he was confident that Brazilians will protect "values that are radically Christian," including respect for "life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature."

Earlier, speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Rome, he was asked whether he would agree with the excommunication of Mexican legislators who recently legalized abortion in Mexico City.

"Yes," the pope replied. "The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the Code [of Canon Law]. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with being in Communion with the body of Christ. Thus, they [the bishops] didn't do anything new or anything surprising, or arbitrary."

The comments came during 25 minutes of questions and answers, Pope Benedict's first full-fledged news conference.

The pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, later sought out reporters to attempt to play down the statement. Church leaders in Mexico have not excommunicated the legislators, Lombardi said, and the pope meant that politicians who favor abortion rights in effect excommunicate themselves and should be denied Communion, a milder sanction. Pope Benedict did not mean to set new policy, Lombardi said.

"If the bishops haven't excommunicated anyone, it's not that the pope wants to," Lombardi said. "Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. Politicians exclude themselves from Communion."

Excommunication, which bars the person from receiving sacraments and participating in public worship, is the church's most severe punishment. "Self-excommunication" is less onerous.

The issue of punishment for Catholic politicians who legislate in ways that conflict with church belief is a debate that has raged for years. Ordering excommunication for Catholic politicians would also have tremendous ramifications in the U.S. Although some priests have decided to deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians, such punishment has never been a blanket Vatican policy.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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