APARECIDA, Brazil – Pope Benedict XVI blamed Marxism and unbridled capitalism for Latin America's problems on Sunday, and urged bishops to mold a new generation of Roman Catholic leaders in politics to reverse the church's declining influence in the region.
Ending a five-day trip to the church's biggest stronghold on the planet, Benedict also warned that legalized contraception and abortion in Latin America threaten "the future of the peoples" and said the historic Catholic identity of the region is under assault.
Like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict criticized capitalism's negative effects and Marxist influences that motivated some grass-roots Catholic activists, remnants of the Liberation theology he moved to crush when he was a cardinal.
"The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit," Benedict said as he opened a two-week bishops' conference aimed at re-energizing the church's influence in Latin America.
But he added that unfettered capitalism and globalization, blamed by many in the region for the deep divide between the rich and poor, gives "rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness."
Benedict, speaking in Spanish and Portuguese to the bishops in Brazil's holiest shrine city, also said Latin America needs more dedicated Catholics in leadership positions in the media and at universities throughout the region.
"This being a continent of baptized Christians, it is time to overcome the notable absence — in the political sphere, in the world of the media and in the universities — of the voices and initiatives of Catholic leaders with strong personalities and generous dedication, who are coherent in their ethical and religious convictions," Benedict said.
He said the church's leaders must halt a trend that has seen millions of Catholics turn into born-again Protestants or simply stop going to church.
"It is true that one can detect a certain weakening of Christian life in society overall," Benedict told 200 bishops and archbishops and 20 cardinals. "And of participation in the life of the Catholic Church, due to secularism, hedonism, indifferentism and proselytism by numerous sects, animist religions and new pseudo-religious phenomena."
In Aparecida and in major events earlier this week in Sao Paulo that attracted more than 1 million people, Benedict roundly denounced immorality in a bid to counter the a rising tide of Latin Americans flouting the church's prohibition on premarital sex and divorce.
Now, he said, the bishops must convince Catholics from all walks of life "to bring the light of the Gospel into public life, into culture, economics and politics."
Benedict didn't name any countries in his criticism of capitalism and Marxism, but Latin America has become deeply divided in recent years with a sharp political tilt to the left — with the election of leftist leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and the re-election in Venezuela of President Hugo Chavez, an avowed socialist.
Other countries, like Brazil, have leftist leaders who have come under heavy criticism for embracing free market economic policy that critics contend helps only big business and does for the poor.
Benedict called the institution of the family "one of the most important treasures of Latin American countries" but said it is under attack and that "civil legislation opposed to marriage which, by supporting contraception and abortion, is threatening the future of peoples."
Mexico City lawmakers last month approved abortion in a move hotly contested by the church, and Catholic leaders in Brazil constantly assail the government's free handout of millions of condoms to prevent AIDS.
Before addressing the bishops, Benedict said Mass before 150,000 faithful jammed into the plaza in front of the mammoth basilica of Aparecida, home to the nation's patron saint, a black Virgin Mary.
As hundreds of choir members sang hymns and the faithful waved flags from all corners of South America, the German-born pope called the region the "continent of hope" and said the bishops must be "courageous and effective missionaries" to ensure the strength of the church.
But the turnout fell far short of the 400,000 to 500,000 worshippers local organizers hoped would show up for Benedict's last big public event of the papal tour, his longest since becoming pope two years ago.
The 80-year-old pope also said the Church needs to worker harder getting its message across on the Internet, radio and television — methods used effectively by Protestant congregations attracting legions of followers, particularly in the vast slums ringing Brazil's largest cities.
While Brazil is home to more than 120 million of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, the nation's census shows the percentage of citizens characterizing themselves as Catholics plunged to 74 percent in 2000 from 89 percent in 1980. The ranks of those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose to 15 percent from 7 percent.
Waiting to catch a glimpse of the pope in the shadow of Aparecida's basilica, 68-year-old Maria Costa said Brazilians needed the message from Benedict, and that his trip could revitalize the church.
"Catholics weren't feeling very good with the Church, and that's why so many were leaving," she said. "I think that could change now. Let's hope so."