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Pope visits waning Latin American flock

Pope Benedict XVI will confront a decline in influence as he arrives in Brazil Wednesday.

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Outside the São Bento monastery in São Paulo, where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to give a public blessing Wednesday night after arriving in Brazil, florists bustled about creating their arrangements, sparks flew as welders finished a new archway to cover the church entrance, and residents spoke excitedly about the pope's first visit to Latin America.

But his mission is nothing if not formidable – even in the so-called "continent of hope," where nearly half the world's Roman Catholics live. The Catholic Church seeks to regain influence in a region where the people, while still electrified by the visit of a pope, are no longer necessarily Catholic nor adherents of the moral code of Rome.

Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world. Still, the influence of the church has been waning as Catholics here have left the fold for Protestant, predominantly Pentecostal, churches. At the same time the number of those considering themselves to be secular has grown – driving a wedge between the strictures of the church and mainstream mores.

Already, Brazil's politicians and Catholic leaders have butted heads over condom distribution. That dispute comes as the "culture wars" have found their way to Latin America – with nations moving to relax rules on abortion and strengthen legal rights for same-sex couples. For a pope seen as a methodical academic – lacking the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, but sharing his conservative vision – the trip could be a preview of how wide the gulf has become.

"It's a different Latin America," says Hannah Stewart-Gambino, an expert on religion in Latin America at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. And while it is far more conservative than the US or Europe, its recent moves have put the church on notice. "The view of the Catholic Church, and particularly of this pope, is that the slippery slope of secularism is a rapid downhill slide into godlessness. ... In Latin America, [Catholic leaders] feel they have to be very vigilant to end the downhill slide so that it doesn't end up like Europe."

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