SAO PAULO (CNS) — Brazil’s bishops hosted a debate with eight presidential candidates because, as Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida said, the “church cannot ignore politics.”
“The church has always been present in the country’s political life,” Cardinal Assis, president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, said before the debate in an auditorium at the Aparecida national shrine.
This is the first time Aparecida, considered by many as Brazil’s faith capital, has hosted a presidential debate, and the second time Brazil’s bishops have hosted such an event. The first was during the 2010 presidential campaign.
“I believe the church should contribute to this important moment in Brazil’s history,” said Archbishop Sergio da Rocha of Brasilia. Bishop Pedro Jose Conti of Macapa agreed with the archbishop’s assessment and said, “To be able to talk to the candidates means that the church also participates in the country’s social life.”
During the debate, bishops and Catholic media representatives asked the candidates questions about major issues for the Brazilian people. While some views were already known to the Brazilian people, other concerns, especially social ones, were made clearer by the candidates during the Sept. 16 debate, just weeks before the Oct. 5 general elections.
Auxiliary Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of Brasilia, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, asked Jose Maria Eymael of the Social Christian Democratic Party about human rights.
“What is your program for those who live on the streets of our cities?” asked Bishop Steiner.
Eymael, who has less than 1 percent of the vote in pre-election polls, responded that his biggest commitment is with the family and the protection of family values.
“Human dignity is a fundamental cornerstone of the Christian Democratic Party,” he said.
Archbishop Jacinto Furtado de Brito Sobrinho of Teresina asked Green Party candidate Eduardo Jorge what he, as president, would do regarding issues of indigenous’ right to land.
“The constitution of 1988 guaranteed the indigenous population demarcation of their ancestral lands within a five-year period, but today less than 50 percent percent of that land has been (marked) as indigenous territory,” said the archbishop.
Jorge was emphatic: “We are going backward when it comes to demarcation. … This translates into more poverty, more hunger, more infant mortality. If elected I would immediately authorize the demarcation of several areas.”
Bishop Guilherme Werlang of Ipameri, president of the bishops’ commission on charity, justice and peace, asked President Dilma Rousseff what she would do to reduce significantly the immense social inequality that still exists in Brazil, “where 1 percent of the population holds 50 percent of the country’s wealth.”
Rousseff said among her top commitments were social inclusion and the reduction of inequality.
“A U.N. report states that, for the first time in history, Brazil is not on the hunger map. This means we have taken a great step to reduce hunger and misery,” she said.
A TV Aparecida reporter asked third-place candidate Aecio Neves about same-sex marriages, to which the Social Democracy Party candidate responded: “Any type of discrimination, including homophobia, should be considered a crime … as for same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court has recognized the union. This is a turned page in my opinion.”
Perhaps one of the most awkward moments during the debate came when a Catholic radio reporter asked Jorge his position on abortion.
“I am a doctor and sponsored a bill on family planning,” Jorge said. “To reduce abortions we need to expand family planning and sex education. Until that happens we can’t abandon the 800,000 women who interrupt their pregnancies each year … many of whom are Catholics.”
Cardinal Assis later said the “questions asked were not only of great importance to the church but to the nation.”
“Some were questions which were not raised in other debates, such as issues on indigenous, family … issues surrounding homophobia and abortion,” he said.