Pope Benedict XVI, who is currently making his first pilgrimage to Latin America, managed to spark controversy even before his plane touched down.
During his flight to Sao Paulo on Wednesday, he made remarks to reporters which seemed to suggest he thought that lawmakers in Mexico City who voted to permit first-trimester abortions had excommunicated themselves from the Catholic Church. The pope made the remarks during his first full-fledged press conference since he became the Vatican's highest official two years ago, which took the form of a 26-minute chat with journalists high above the Sahara desert.
Responding to an Italian journalist who asked if politicians in Mexico City should be considered excommunicated, the pope replied: "Yes."
"The excommunication was not something arbitrary," the pope said. "It is part of the Code (of Canon Law). It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with receiving communion, which is receiving the body of Christ. Thus, (the bishops) didn't do anything new or anything surprising or arbitrary."
His statements left journalists wondering whether the pope had really just spoken of the excommunication of politicians. And what ramifications could that possibly have for many politicians in liberal Western European countries and the United States where abortion is legal?
Later, journalists bombarded the pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, with questions about what, exactly, the pope was trying to say. "If the bishops haven't excommunicated anyone, it's not that the pope wants to," Lombardi said. "Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist." He said that politicians who vote in favor of pro-abortion legislation are excluding themselves from communion. He added, however, that the pope had not set any new policy with his statements. Under Catholic law, being denied communion is a milder sanction than being excommunicated.
'My Conscience Is Clean'
In April, the legislature in Mexico's capital city legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Many politicians there are ignoring Pope Benedict's criticism.
"I'm Catholic and I'm going to continue being Catholic even if the church excommunicates me," said Mexico City lawmaker Leticia Quezada, according to the Associated Press. "My conscience is clean."
But in Brazil, where abortion is illegal in all cases except rape or if a mother's life is endangered, more than 5,000 protesters opposed to abortion took to the streets in the capital city Brasilia.
Prior to the pope's visit, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government criticized the Catholic Church's stance on abortion. Though Lula said he personally opposed abortion, his government has sought to make it a public health issue, noting that many women die each year from illegal abortions. Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao wants to hold a referendum on the issue, but he claims that churches have made public debate about abortion extremely difficult.
While visiting Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country, the pope will send out a "strong message" on poverty, social inequality, drug trafficking and violence and the exodus of Catholics to Protestant churches, the Vatican's secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said, according to AP. Benedict XVI will also attend a once-a-decade meeting of Catholic bishops from across Latin America.
In Brazil, the pope also faces the prickly issue of followers of liberation theology,which urges Catholics to take a greater role in social and political activism. It exponents, however, have been sanctioned by the Vatican, which views the movement as unorthodox. The pope said Wednesday that those who follow liberation theology were "mistakenly mixing faith and politics," although the Church was still highly committed to social justice.