Mexico City Politicians In Hot Holy Water

Pope Benedict XVI talks with an unidentified prelate, as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, center, is all smiles, upon arrival at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci international airport Wednesday, May 9, 2007.
AP Photo/Plinio Lepri
Pope Benedict XVI landed in Brazil Wednesday on his first Latin America trip as pontiff, determined to lay down church law on abortion and answer a "thirst for God" in the region.

Arriving at Sao Paulo's international airport, Benedict greeted Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and gave a speech in an airplane hanger before heading to a monastery where he'll stay during his five-day visit.

"I extend my greetings to all the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean in the words of the Apostle: 'Peace to all of you who are in Christ,"' Benedict said, speaking in Portuguese.

Hundreds of faithful waiting in the cold rain for a glimpse of Benedict Wednesday seemed not to care about the major challenges the Vatican says he hopes to confront during his visit, such as the church's declining influence in Brazil, the rise of evangelicism, or his inflight comments about politicians who legalized abortion in Mexico City.

Catholic officials have been debating for some time whether politicians who approve abortion legislation as well as doctors and nurses who take part in abortions would subject themselves to automatic excommunication under church law. The pope seemed to agree with Mexico City's bishops who declared that the city's pro-abortion lawmakers had excommunicated themselves.

"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.

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, later said he wasn't aware that the pope was setting down a new policy.

In a statement approved by the pope, Lombardi said the pope did not intend to formally excommunicate anyone — a separate and rare process under church law. "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.

But Lombardi said politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. "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."

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 says anyone who has an abortion is automatically excommunicated. "Being a conspiring or necessary accomplice" to an abortion also means excommunication under church law.

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."

Before leaving Rome, Benedict 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.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.