Bishops’ comments on abortion spark debate in Brazilian campaign

October 24, 2010

SAO PAULO, Brazil – As Brazil’s Oct. 31 presidential runoff approaches, abortion has become a major issue – at least among the nation’s Catholics.

The abortion controversy started two months before the Oct. 3 general elections, when a southern regional office of the bishops’ conference released a “Plea to all Brazilians” asking them not to vote for candidates who supported the legalization of abortion.

The document, distributed throughout dioceses in the states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo, stated specifically that candidate Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party supported a plan to decriminalize abortion. Signed by Bishop Nelson Westrupp of Santo Andre and two other bishops, the document asked Catholics to vote only for candidates and political parties opposed to legalizing abortion.

Churches, especially in Sao Paulo, distributed the letter at Sunday Masses and asked parishioners not to vote for “pro-abortion” Workers Party candidates. Retired Bishop Emilio Pignoli of Campo Limpo even taped an appeal on YouTube calling for the boycott of Workers Party candidates.

Bishop Luiz Bergonzini of Guarulhos read a statement at Mass asking Catholics not to vote for Rousseff, the government’s candidate. Bishop Bergonzini also wrote an article, posted on the diocese’s website, that reiterated his opinion.

A few days after the statement from the southern regional bishops, the national offices of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, based in Brasilia, issued a statement saying the opinions within the “Plea to all Brazilians” were not the official position of the Brazilian bishops’ conference. The statement said only the national conference was authorized to speak in the name of the entity.

“The (conference) has no party or ... candidate, but encourages the population to vote for those who respect ethical principles and the criteria” of the church, based on Catholic social teaching. It said “the vote should be given to those who defended and defend the value of life from its conception until its natural end.”

An aide to Bishop Westrupp, who asked not to be identified by name, told Catholic News Service in October, “The situation just got out of hand.”

“The plea was a general appeal to our parishioners to think about who they were voting for. The regional office did not imagine the issue would turn out to be so controversial,” said the source, adding that the mention of the Workers Party platform to legalize abortion was an example of what to look for when assessing the candidates.

Analysts say the bishops’ position on the matter is a delicate one, since the Catholic Church has always supported the Workers Party and was one of the social bases for the party’s creation in the 1980s. The Catholic Church has always walked hand in hand with the Workers Party on issues such as landless peasants and agrarian rights.

Rousseff, who had a wide advantage over opposition leader Jose Serra earlier this year, fell short of winning the presidency in the first round. They say the presence of third-place candidate Marina Silva and the abortion issue were the main reason Rousseff did not win outright Oct. 3.

Rousseff said she personally was against abortion, but that she believed the issue was a public health problem. The media, however, reported her statements from years ago that indicated her support for the decriminalization of abortion.

After the first round of voting Oct. 3, the regional bishops’ office asked dioceses to quit distributing its August statement since, with only two candidates in the runoff, the letter could be construed as taking sides.

Many bishops, however, refused to let go of the issue. Bishop Benedito dos Santos of Lorena posted a YouTube video Oct. 18 insisting that Catholics should not vote for candidates who favor legalizing abortion.

Since the bishops have total autonomy within their dioceses, there is not much the regional office may do. The bishops who spoke out originally are no longer giving out interviews but continue to write opinions on their dioceses’ websites and continue to distribute the “plea” letter.