Human Rights

The New Schism

Home to 65 percent of the world's Catholics, Latin America is increasingly at odds with church doctrine -- especially over abortion. The appointment of ultraconservative Joseph Ratzinger as pope offers little to close the rift.
Clamoring for attention from a world distracted by war and terrorism, Latin Americans were hoping for a pope from their region where, by some accounts, 65 percent of the world's Catholics live.

It is also where anti-choice laws cause millions of unsafe, illegal abortions each year and where a popular repudiation of the church's stance on abortion and birth control is taking place.

That may spell headaches for the Vatican as Latin American leaders face secular pressures to soften abortion laws. But any hopes that a new pope might have tilted the church's stance on abortion was shot down with the election Tuesday of ultraconservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger in 2004 ordered bishops to refuse communion to politicians who support abortion rights, including presidential candidate John Kerry. In a letter that was obtained by the Italian magazine L'Espresso, Ratzinger wrote that abortion supporters "would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy communion."

If recent past is prologue, the new pope's unyielding stance is likely to set him at odds against Latin American politicians.

In Argentina, for example, Bishop Antonio Baseotto suggested in March that a high Argentine government official should be subjected to the biblical punishment of being "cast into the sea" for suggesting abortion be legalized. In response, Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, refused to recognize the bishop, prompting the Vatican to make the odd and unexplained charge that Buenos Aires was restricting religious freedom.

The issue, while mollifed slightly in recent days, challenged relations between Buenos Aires and Rome and reopened the abortion debate here, which recently has been energized by activists and organizations making public appeals for legalization. Recently, dozens of pro-choice supporters ran ads in major Argentine papers calling for legalization of abortion.

And in Brazil, the world's largest Catholic nation, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has come under fire from the church for proposals to lighten restrictions on abortion.

In an interview published in early April, Rio de Janeiro Cardinal Eusebio Scheid took shots at the left-leaning president, saying "a real Catholic cannot be in favor of abortion." Lula has defended his faith in media interviews while refusing to back down from his government's stances. Pope John Paul II himself fell at odds with Lula's government and many Brazilians on issues such as contraception, abortion and Marxist liberation theology.

Watching Public Opinion

What do everyday Catholics in Latin America think?

A recent survey of Catholics in three countries, Mexico, Bolivia and Colombia, shows large swaths of Latin Americans do not agree with traditional doctrine.

The survey, conducted for Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group, found that significant numbers of Catholics in Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia believe abortion should be allowed in some or all circumstances. The report found that:

  • Eighty-one percent of Mexican Catholics opposed excommunicating a woman who has had an abortion (the current Catholic doctrine). While more conservative in their views, 74 percent of Bolivian Catholics and 67 percent of Colombian Catholics think a woman should be allowed to remain in the church after an abortion.


  • Of Catholic populations in Mexico, Bolivia and Columbia, 60 percent of Mexicans, 56 percent of Bolivians and 49 percent of Colombians believe that abortions should be allowed in some or all circumstances.


  • Sixty-two percent of Bolivian Catholics, 55 percent of Mexican Catholics, and 48 percent of Colombian Catholics believe the decision to have an abortion lies not with the church but with the couple.


Perhaps most notably, the study showed that Catholics surveyed do not depend on church opinion when voting, further highlighting the disconnect between doctrine and political reality. Only 19 percent of Mexican Catholics, for example, said their priest would sway their votes. In Colombia, only 22 percent said their religious leaders' opinion mattered to them and in Bolivia only 30 percent felt the same.

Similar trends apply to reproductive rights, according to the study. Ninety one percent of Catholics in Colombia and Mexico and 79 percent of Catholics in Bolivia believe that couples should have access to contraception, including condoms and birth control pills. Of those groups, high numbers believe public hospitals and health clinics should provide reproductive services for free: 96 percent of Mexican Catholics, 91 percent of Colombian and Bolivian Catholics.

"These studies clearly demonstrate the attitude of many Catholics regarding the church's role of reproductive rights and politics are moving to a more progressive stance, even though the Vatican refuses to accept this shift," the study states. "Throughout this report it is clear that the beliefs of Catholics in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, more often than not, take a different direction that those of church officials. When and if the Vatican ever decides to acknowledge this point, it will see that Catholics all over the world have already moved in this direction."

How will global Catholicism contend with what appears to be a mass repudiation of essential points of doctrine among Latin America's vast Catholic population?

While observers say more Latin American priests on the ground seem less willing to excommunicate a woman for having an abortion, social researchers like Mariana Romero of the Buenos Aires-based Center for the Study of State and Society say the church is very unlikely to change its essential doctrine, despite secular pressures and a softening of abortion laws throughout Latin America.

Echoing that point, Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentine archbishop and the chancellor of the The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, says the church will face new realities and may shift on certain issues. But it will remain unmoved on some fronts.

"The church," he said in a recent interview published in El Clarin, a leading Argentine newspaper, "is never going to accept abortion."
Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington D.C. and Latin America. His work has appeared in several U.S. publications and web sites including the Christian Science Monitor, The American Prospect and High Country News.
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