He is easily the most peripatetic pope in history -- traveling far more than even medieval Roman Catholic churchmen who went on far-ranging religious crusades. But like them, Pope John Paul II is on a crusade. His sixth trip to Latin America, which began last weekend, is a double-barreled mission:
To arrest the flagging influence of his church in a region that has long been nominally Roman Catholic.
To halt the spread of ``liberation theology'' -- a school of thought that calls for social change through political action -- within the ranks of fellow churchmen. Such priests advocate an activist role by the clergy in achieving the change. The Vatican has charged that liberation theology contains Marxist elements.
The latter effort is at the heart of the trip, his 25th foreign journey since becoming Pope.
``Liberation theology is a grave detour,'' he said as he flew to the New World.
Pope John Paul has frequently scolded churchmen who enter politics. He did it again when he arrived in Venezuela, the first stop on his 12-day tour.
Just before leaving for Latin America, the Pope took a step designed to strengthen his own hand: He called for a church synod to meet in November and December to review the work of the Second Vatican Council, which 20 years ago gave impetus to liberation theology. The presumption is that the synod will be called upon to alter the liberal thrust of Vatican II and bring a more conservative tone to theological matters.
That conservative approach came out in Pope John Paul's first speech in Venezuela, Sunday, where he called on Venezuelan Roman Catholics and others to reject divorce, abortion, and artificial means of birth control.
Churchmen who adhere to Vatican dictates have been stepping up their attacks on contraception, divorce, and abortion in homilies in preparation for the Pope's visit.
To some extent, the liberal-conservative split within the church is likely to be a bit less intense as the Pope visits Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago. The visit is something of a spectacular -- his first ever to these countries.
As if in preparation for the Pope's visit, a church congress in Peru of 600 Catholic churchmen and scholars has just approved a document calling for the church theology to respond to the teaching of the Pope as a ``valid alternative to conflictive ideological currents.''
That language almost seems to have come from the Vatican and from Pope John Paul. In his first appearance in Venezuela, the Pope said: ``Liberation theology is ideological and is one of the causes of disharmony within the church.''
Pope John Paul holds that liberation theology is part of the reason the church is losing influence in Latin America.
The Pope has never been entirely happy with the somewhat liberal conclusions of either the first Latin American Bishops' Conference in Colombia in 1968 or the second, which took place in Mexico in 1979 shortly after he became Pope. While he wasn't able to control the outcome, he did manage to get more conservative bishops into key roles in Latin America. He has continued to stress this approach.
In the past year, the Vatican has tried to remove four churchmen from key government roles in Nicaragua and is in the process of stripping them of their priesthood.
``This should be enough to tell other bishops and priests that the papacy will not brook such disobedience,'' said a churchman here close to the Pope. ``It is a case of obedience to Rome. The Vatican is insisting on it. And the Pope will make that clear on his trip.''