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RIO BRAVO: Francis at the St. Francis of Assisi Hospital.
Tasso Marcelo/AFP/Getty Images
RIO BRAVO: Francis at the St. Francis of Assisi Hospital.

Papal homecoming

Religion | Pope’s visit to Brazil sparks outpouring, controversy

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

Brazil in July welcomed Pope Francis for his first international trip, occasioned by Catholic World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Officials expected as many as 1.5 million pilgrims to come to Brazil during his visit, which concluded July 28 with a papal mass.

Touching down at the Rio airport, Francis gave his opening address in Portuguese, adopting his now-familiar humble tone. “Let me knock gently at this door,” he said, “I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.” By all accounts, Brazilian Catholics eagerly received the Argentine-born pope. With about 123 million adherents, Brazil remains the largest Catholic country in the world, but evangelical and charismatic Protestants have made remarkable gains there in recent years. In 1970, 92 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholics; today, only 65 percent do.

On the visit, Francis continued to cultivate his image as the “people’s pope.” For much of his ride through the city, he abandoned the traditional “popemobile,” with its bulletproof glass cover, in favor of a basic Fiat with the window rolled down. At one point, his motorcade took a wrong turn and the adoring crowd mobbed his car. Ultimately Francis took a helicopter to reach Rio’s presidential palace. His own security detail was light, but Brazil mobilized more than 23,000 police and military personnel especially for his stay. The day of his arrival, officials discovered a pipe bomb at a Catholic shrine Francis planned to visit.

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Francis also caused controversy in the lead-up to World Youth Day when the Vatican announced that those who could not attend could still “obtain Plenary Indulgence”—credit for less time in Purgatory—by participating in the week’s devotions “via the new means of social communication,” including Francis’ Twitter feed. Popular Christian blogger Justin Taylor incredulously tweeted about that story with the hashtag #ReformationNotOver. 

In comments to reporters following the visit, Francis also created a furor when he said of gays, “who am I to judge?” Catholic commentators said he was referring to forgiving repentant gays, including gay clergy, and not denying that homosexual acts were sinful.

Sharia inoculation

LAW OF THE LAND: The view from the state Senate gallery as the bill is approved.
Chuck Liddy/MCT/Abaca USA/Newscom
LAW OF THE LAND: The view from the state Senate gallery as the bill is approved.

North Carolina legislators passed a bill July 24 prohibiting courts from considering “foreign law” in marriage, child custody, and other family-related cases. Although it does not mention Islamic Sharia law, critics and supporters agree that the measure mainly targets the Muslim legal code and its possible role in courts. Earlier state attempts to ban Sharia by name raised constitutional concerns. A federal court struck down an Oklahoma anti-Sharia law in 2012, saying it discriminated against Muslims. 

Defenders of the North Carolina statute hope that its more expansive ban of foreign law will pass constitutional muster. The bill’s sponsor, Republican state representative Chris Whitmire, says that it will force judges to consider only U.S. statutes, and protect “constitutional rights, especially of women and minorities.” But critics call the bill “a ban in search of a problem,” and note that it would also prohibit recognition of other religious groups’ procedures, such as Orthodox Jews’ internal handling of divorce cases. 

Religion News Service reports that while the U.S. Muslim community has no Islamic courts, American judges do occasionally have to deal with Sharia-based foreign law, such as marriage contracts granted by Muslim courts overseas. Some Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, enforce notoriously harsh versions of Sharia, which critics see as discriminating against non-Muslims and women. Other Muslim nations, such as Turkey, maintain secular courts and do not recognize Sharia. —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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