Midway through his Brazilian trip, Pope John Paul II is proving to be more of a social and political activist than some churchmen and others expected. While he appears a man who has a little something for everyone, in that he often takes both sides of an issue, the basic thrust of what he is telling Brazilians -- government leaders, church officials, and the common folk -- is that change in Brazilian society and in all of Latin America is absolutely essential.
"Anyone who sees the reality of Latin America, the way it looks today," the Pope told a crowd of 150,000 July 6 in Brazil's former capital, Salvador, "must agree that the realization of justice faces a clear dilemma.
"It will either evolve through bold and sweeping reforms, respecting principles of human dignity, or it will come about -- but without lasting or beneficial effect, of this I am convinced -- through violence.Each of you must get involved in this dilemma. Each of you must make the choice now, at this historic moment."
For Pope John Paul, the visit to Brazil is such an historic moment. Brazil is not only Latin America's largest and most populous nation, but also the largest and most populous Roman Catholic country in the world.
However, fewer than half of the 125 million people in the country are even occasional churchgoers. The average Brazilian has a rather cavalier attitude toward formal religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Pope John Paul has made it clear he would like to alter this picture. But he runs smack into macumba, the ritualistic religion brought to Brazil by West African slaves and practiced both in concert with Catholicism and separately from it.
Adherents of macumba are unlikely to be persuaded by the Pope's efforts. Many Brazilian churchmen have opted simply to tolerate macumba within the church as a way of reaching people who might otherwise not be touched by Catholicism. The Pope, however, has told fellow churchmen in Brazil they should be more aggressive in their efforts to bring Catholicism to Brazil's masses.
But most of his messages so far have been aimed at social reform within Brazil. He told Brazil's military leaders upon arrival that a nation without justice invites violence. Government, he said June 30 in Brasilia, Brazil's starkly modern capital, must assure "the common good for all and respect for their rights."
This was quickly taken as a warning to the government of Gen. Jono Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo that it should adopt a more equitable human rights stance.
No sooner had he made these remarks than he took issue with some of the activist Catholic priests in Brazil who want the church to confront the government in the struggle on human rights and who in some instances espouse Marxism as a way of effecting change. "The church's mission is not sociopolitical, but pastoral," he told the churchmen. That is the same message he brought to the Latin American bishopric conference in Puebla, Mexico, in February of last year.
Yet it is clear that the Pope is nudging his church to stand beside the vast number of poor people in Brazil and to demand that their cause be regarded as top priority by the Brazilian government. There is no ambiguity in the message, as some Latin American churchmen complained following the Pope's earlier visit to Mexico.
The Pope, however, has yet to address the question of birth control -- an issue that divides his church in Latin America. In Brazil, the Figueiredo government will soon announce a massive family-planning program, and is enlisting the support of many churchmen, in an effort to slow the staggering population growth of the country.
Such programs run counter to Catholic dogma, which prohibits the use of artificial means of birth control. Many Catholic churchmen, however, feel that the tremendous population growth in recent years in places like Brazil is in large measure responsible for the failure of programs of social and economic reform.
"You simply cannot have more people all the time and expect to make any headway in solving the backwardness of Latin America," commented Carlos Nelson da Souza, a priest in Salvador, who takes direct issue with Catholic dogma on this question. Other churchmen are much less dogmatic, but nevertheless do not accept the view John Paul has been espousing with vigor since he took over the papacy 18 months ago.
Pope John Paul's Brazilian visit, seventh of his pontificate, is his most ambitious. Lasting 13 days and covering 17,500 miles, it touches much of the vast country that encompasses almost half of South America.