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Associated Press, May 9, 2007

Pope warns Catholic politicians who back abortion


ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI denounced Mexico City politicians Wednesday for voting to legalize abortion, saying they should no longer receive Communion.

Flying to Latin America, Benedict was asked about comments by Mexico City church officials that the lawmakers would be excommunicated for having voted last month for the legislation legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

``It's nothing new, it's normal, it wasn't arbitrary. It is what is foreseen by the church's doctrine,'' Benedict told reporters aboard a plane to Brazil in his first full-fledged news conference since becoming pontiff in 2005.

Reporters flying with the pope took his comments to mean that he endorsed the comments by Mexican churchmen that the lawmakers should be excommunicated.

But the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, later issued a statement approved by the pope clarifying the remarks. The statement said the pope did not intend to excommunicate anyone. Politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, Lombardi said.

``Since excommunication hasn't been declared by the Mexican bishops, the pope has no intention himself of declaring it,'' said Lombardi, who was on board the plane. ``Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. ... Politicians exclude themselves from Communion.''

Pressed further by journalists if the lawmakers were excommunicated, Lombardi reiterated: ``No, they exclude themselves from Communion.''

Church officials said the pope may have spoken about excommunication thinking that the Mexican City bishops had already issued formal declaration of excommunication for the legislators, which they have not.

Excommunication is the severest penalty the Roman Catholic Church can impose on its members. When someone is excommunicated ``his status before the church is that of a stranger,'' the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says. In practical terms, that means the excommunicated person is forbidden from receiving the sacraments and participating in public worship.

Church teaching calls for automatic excommunication for anyone who has an abortion. In Mexico City, church officials have said that doctors and nurses who perform the procedure, as well as lawmakers who supported its legalization, also would be excommunicated.

The Mexican politicians who supported the measure shrugged off Benedict's comments Wednesday. ``I'm Catholic and I'm going to continue being Catholic even if the church excommunicates me,'' said leftist Mexico City lawmaker Leticia Quezada. ``My conscience is clean.''

In the news conference, Benedict also said the exodus of Catholics for evangelical Protestant churches in Latin America was ``our biggest worry.''

But he said the spread of Protestantism shows a ``thirst for God'' in the region, and that he intends to lay down a strategy to answer that call when he meets with bishops from throughout Latin America in a once-a-decade meeting in the shrine city of Aparecida near Sao Paulo.

``We have to become more dynamic,'' he said. Evangelical churches, which the Vatican considers ``sects,'' have attracted millions of Latin American Catholics in recent years.

The Vatican also has promised that Benedict will deliver a tough message on poverty and crime during his five-day visit to Brazil - the world's most populous Roman Catholic country.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited Mexico and addressed Latin American bishops just three months after assuming the papacy. Benedict has waited two years for his first trip to a region where nearly half the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live. But he denied being ``Eurocentric'' or less concerned about poverty in the developing world than his predecessors.

``I love Latin America. I have traveled there a lot,'' he told reporters, adding that he is happy the time had come for the trip after focusing on more urgent problems in the Middle East and Africa.

Benedict, who visited Brazil as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1990, will celebrate several open-air Masses, including a canonization ceremony for Brazil's first native-born saint, and visit a church-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

Many Brazilians are torn between the church's traditional teachings and the pressures of the modern world, and abortion is at the forefront. The procedure is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger. These cases amount to just 2,000 abortions a year, and polls show Brazilians are overwhelmingly opposed to expanding it.

Some 5,000 people - both Catholics and Protestants - marched against abortion Tuesday in the capital of Brasilia. Similar marches were held in Mexico.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will meet with the pope in Sao Paulo, but a spokesman said the center-left leader does not plan to bring up abortion or other sensitive issues, such as a government anti-AIDS program that distributes millions of condoms each year.

The pope also faces some opposition from within the Brazilian church, where liberation theology - which links spiritual growth to human rights - is still active among thousands of groups working with poor and landless communities.

Benedict said those who follow liberation theology were ``mistakenly mixing faith and politics,'' but stressed that the church has not eased its commitment to social justice.

As John Paul's close aide, Benedict led a campaign against what the Vatican considers a Marxist-inspired movement. The Vatican set the tone for this trip by censuring the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a prominent champion of liberation theology in the region, and condemning some of his works as ``erroneous or dangerous.''

On another topic dear to the region, Benedict said he believed the beatification process for slain El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was moving ahead. Romero was gunned down on March 24, 1980, a day after calling on the Salvadoran military to halt its repressive tactics.

Benedict called Romero a ``great witness to the Catholic faith'' and praised him for standing up to dictatorship.

Despite the abortion issue and inroads by evangelical groups, Vatican officials say the church's scorecard in Latin America is not entirely bleak.

A study released in Brazil this week indicates that the flight from the Catholic church stabilized from 2000 to 2003, even though the ranks of Protestants continued to grow.

And on abortion, the Vatican points to countries such as Nicaragua which last year banned the procedure in all cases.

The May 9-14 pilgrimage is Benedict's first lengthy trip as pope.

Although he appears healthy and has never missed a scheduled event, he said in an interview last year that ``I've never felt strong enough to plan many long trips.''

Except for a stop in Turkey, Benedict's travels have been confined to Europe. The only other trip scheduled this year is to nearby Austria.

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