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Pope visits waning Latin American flock

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"It is due to the expansionism of Protestant sects that attract an ever-larger number of baptized Catholics, but also to moral relativism, imported from Europe and introduced on the continent above all by the local ruling classes, the mass media and the intellectuals," said Mr. Hummes, now prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.

Changing morals

The changing landscape has been reflected in social-values debates across Latin America, where most aspects of public life used to be dominated by Rome. "Regarding sexual morals, the tension between the church and the government is considerably greater," says Faustino Teixeira, a religion professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais.

Just recently, President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva confronted the church in reiterating his stance that sex education, including contraception, is the best way to combat AIDS and teenage pregnancy. His words echoed the views of the public: A UNESCO survey released recently in Brazil showed that two-thirds of parents approve of schools distributing condoms.

The president of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo, shot back on TV: "We cannot agree with the use of the condom," he said.

Manuel Vasquez, an expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says that Pope Benedict XVI can regenerate a region that the church feels has lost its moral compass. One of the pope's few side visits includes a trip to a drug rehabilitation center, where he says he will address the anomic behavior of today's society. "They see part of the crisis of Latin American society as the breakdown of the family," he says. "The pope comes in with a message of moral regeneration with the centerpiece [being] the role of the Catholic family."

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