Pope Francis was greeted by massive crowds in Brazil as he arrived on Monday to help celebrate the Catholic festival known as World Youth Day (WYD). He is, after all, the first Latin American pope in history, and this is his first overseas trip. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are drawn to him because of his attempts to redraw the church as a simple one, with a modest leader who is close to his flock. The pictures of him carrying his own bag up the airplane steps as he departed Italy fit this down-to-earth image perfectly.
His early approach to leadership has renewed the image of the papacy as a charismatic and populist institution. The pope knows that what he says and does is news, and it is telling that many of his early statements were about paying more attention to the poor—a very popular issue among Catholics. His promise to “act decisively” on the sexual abuse crisis also was welcomed. He has moved to reform the Curia—the governing body of the entire church—and the crisis-laden Vatican Bank. These steps have encouraged many people to believe we will soon see a more open church.
However, a key step toward assisting the poor and others—giving them access to contraceptive services so that they may plan their families—has not been mentioned by the pope as of yet.
The pope will find in Brazil a receptive audience, one that has been very active in demonstrations against the enormous public expenditures for the 2014 World Cup, as well as against the economic and social policies of a government many deem to be corrupt. The costs associated with the pope’s visit have also been highlighted by activists, who have planned two major demonstrations in Rio during the coming week. Slutwalk, the global anti-rape movement, has also organized a march in Rio during WYD to draw attention to the violence that nuns suffer within the church and the violence women suffer due to the criminalization of abortion by the Catholic hierarchy.
Pope Francis’ security during the WYD festivities is a big issue between the Brazilian government and the Vatican. Slums close to the areas where he will be visiting are still a battlefield between various drug gangs and weapons dealers and represent a significant security risk. As late as last Friday, security officials tried to convince the Vatican to tighten security, but the pope has resisted. He will not travel in a bulletproof vehicle and has insisted on visiting a favela.
Pope Francis has experience working in marginal areas and believes that his social justice discourse is linked to the demands of demonstrators. He wants to be as close to the people as possible. He needs to demonstrate with actions what he has declared about our church being a church for the poor.
He knows, too, that he will find in Brazil a church in crisis. When Brazil was founded, Catholicism was the only recognized religion. Today, we have the lowest percentage of Catholics in the history of Brazil: 57 percent of the population. The number of Catholics has decreased dramatically in the last few years. In 1994, 75 percent of Brazilians described themselves as Catholic; in 2010 it was 64 percent of the population.
Unlike in Europe, where the number of atheists or non-aligned individuals has increased, people join other Christian churches in Brazil, which has a long tradition of forming progressive church movements like liberation theology and other well-organized grassroots communities. The crusade launched by Pope John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI to destroy these movements opened the door to the expansion of other churches. The number of people attending the Evangelical Church has grown from 9 percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 2010.
A recent survey published in the Veja (one of the most popular Brazilian magazines) may explain this change: There is a large disconnect between the Vatican’s teachings and the wishes and beliefs of young people ages 16 to 24. The survey found that 68 percent of them approve of divorce, 88 percent are in favor of the birth control pill, and 97 percent approve of or use condoms. Even among young Brazilians who declare themselves Catholic and will attend WYD events, there is criticism of conservative attitudes and the lack of dialogue within the church.
We do need to remember that on issues of sexuality, the new pope is doctrinally conservative. He does not bring an attractive discourse—for young people—on issues they care about: sexuality education, contraception, and abortion, to name a few. In his first encyclical, called “Lumen Fidei” or “The Light of Faith,” Pope Francis reaffirmed that heterosexual marriage is the only expression of true love. We may or may not hear statements against abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage during WYD, but they will likely fall on deaf ears. If they delve into their welcome kit, WYD pilgrims will find a copy of a bioethics manual from the National Pastoral Commission on the Family, which was created by the Brazilian bishops’ conference (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil). This publication reiterates the hierarchy’s opposition to contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage; condemns stem cell research; and encourages women who have been raped to continue their pregnancies.
Nor is Pope Francis particularly progressive when it comes to women in the church. When he made a call for nuns to be spiritual mothers and not “old maids,” he demonstrated that he has a patriarchal view of religious life, ignoring the fact that the choice to remain single is a dignified life option like any other. Nuns are neither wives nor mothers of anybody; they gave up motherhood for the freedom of their mission. In addition, he continued Pope Benedict’s decision to clamp down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States for the promotion of what the Vatican calls “radical feminism.”
The central aims of the pope’s visit to Brazil will be to revitalize the gospel; strengthen the church, especially in Latin America; and bring young people back to the church. Many who attend his events also would welcome an announcement that the Vatican will end its opposition to family planning. It might be too much to hope for, but some of us still believe in miracles.
Susana Cruzalta is attending World Youth Day events for Catholics for Choice.