Pope Benedict XVI condemned globalization and Marxism as the causes of many of Latin America's ills on the final day of his trip to Brazil, and lamented the wide gap between the region's small elite and its poor masses.
Benedict urged the region's bishops to mold a new generation of leaders to reverse Roman Catholicism's declining influence in Latin America, but warned that priests should steer clear of politics.
"The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit," the pope told a bishops' conference Sunday aimed at re-energizing the church in Latin America, where Protestant churches have drawn away many of the faithful.
But Benedict also lashed out at unbridled capitalism and globalization. Before boarding a plane for Rome on Sunday to end the five-day visit, he warned the two could give "rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness."
The pope did not name any countries in his criticism of capitalism and Marxism, but Latin America has become deeply divided in recent years amid a sharp tilt to the left - with the election of leftist leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and the re-election of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Center-left leaders govern in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
Marxism also still influences some grassroots Catholic activists in Latin America, remnants of the liberation theology movement Benedict moved to crush when he was a cardinal. Liberation theology holds that the Christian faith should be reinterpreted specifically to deliver oppressed people from injustice.
Touching on a sensitive historical episode, Benedict said Latin American Indians had been "silently longing" to become Christians when Spanish and Portuguese conquerors took over their native lands centuries ago.
"In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture," he said.
Many Indians, however, say the conquest of Latin America by Catholic Spaniards and Portuguese lead to misery, enslavement and death.
Benedict, speaking in Spanish and Portuguese to the bishops in Brazil's holiest shrine city, also warned that legalized contraception and abortion in Latin America threaten "the future of the peoples" and said the historic Catholic identity of the region is at risk.
Religious experts said Benedict didn't address how to solve key church issues in Latin America, including a severe shortage of priests or a specific strategy for how parishes should try win back Catholics who have turned into born-again Protestants or simply stopped going to church.
"Psychologists say what you don't talk about are often the most important things, and that was the case with the pope," said Fernando Altermeyer, a theology professor at Sao Paulo's Catholic Pontificate University.
Added former Vatican Radio reporter David Gibson: "By not looking to the church's structural problems, he's handicapping the chances for success."
While Brazil is home to more than 120 million of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, the census shows that people calling themselves Catholics fell to 74 percent in 2000 from 89 percent in 1980. Those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose to 15 percent from 7 percent.
In events in and near Sao Paulo that attracted more than 1 million people, Benedict criticized the rising tide of Latin Americans flouting the church's prohibition on premarital sex and divorce and told drug dealers they will face divine justice for the misery they cause.
Then he headed to the shrine city of Aparecida, telling the bishops to convince Catholics from all walks of life "to bring the light of the Gospel into public life, into culture, economics and politics."
Benedict called the institution of the family "one of the most important treasures of Latin American countries," but said it is threatened by legislation and government policies contrary to church doctrine on marriage, contraception and abortion.
Mexico City lawmakers recently legalized abortion and gay civil unions, and the Brazilian government routinely hands out millions of free condoms to prevent AIDS.
The pope called the region the "continent of hope" during a Sunday Mass before 150,000 faithful in front of the mammoth basilica of Aparecida home to the nation's patron saint, a black Virgin Mary.
But the turnout fell far short of the 400,000 to 500,000 worshippers local organizers hoped would show up for Benedict's last big public event of the papal tour, his longest since becoming pope two years ago.
Waiting to catch a glimpse of the 80-year-old pope at Aparecida's basilica, 68-year-old Maria Costa said she hoped his trip would revitalize the church in Brazil.
"Catholics weren't feeling very good with the Church, and that's why so many were leaving," she said. "I think that could change now. Let's hope so."
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