In a major speech on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI condemned capitalism and Marxism as ''systems that marginalize God'' and urged the Latin American clergy to feed people's spiritual hunger as the way to ease poverty and halt the Roman Catholic Church's steady decline in the region.
Speaking to Latin American bishops here for a conference on the church's direction for the next decade, the pope also condemned abortion and contraception and laws that permit them. Such laws, he said, are ''threatening the future of peoples.''
The speech was widely anticipated for how Benedict -- on his first visit as pope to the Western Hemisphere -- would tackle issues from poverty and social injustice to the evangelical groups eroding Roman Catholicism in some Latin American countries at the rate of 1 percent a year.
His views were largely consistent with those he held in his earlier life as Joseph Ratzinger, a conservative and contentious cardinal. He was elected pope two years ago.
Just as he, as a cardinal in the 1980s, cracked down on liberation theology, which he viewed as incorrectly emphasizing Christ as social redeemer, Benedict stressed first proclaiming Christ as the son of God -- even if many of the poor here might like to hear more about social justice.
''What is real?'' he mused in the speech, hours before heading back to Rome after five days in Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country. ''Are only material goods, social and economic and political problems 'reality'?'' Without agreeing first on God, he argued to the bishops, society is unable to tackle the problems of poverty and social injustice.
''Just structures are,'' he said, ''an indispensable condition for a just society, but they neither rise nor function without a moral consensus in society on fundamental values.''
''Where God is absent -- God with the human face of Jesus Christ -- these values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arise concerning them,'' he said.
''I do not mean that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values.''
As Benedict headed home on Sunday evening, the trip added to a sense, expressed recently by supporters and critics alike, that his papacy seemed to be moving closer to the conservative mold that Cardinal Ratzinger had embodied.
His personal style, praised often even by critics, remains pastoral and gentle. But the more contentious views, less publicly visible when he first began as leader of the world's billion Roman Catholics, seem to be coming more to the fore.
On Wednesday, on the flight to Brazil from Rome, he seemed to weigh in on a particularly sensitive issue for the church: Catholic politicians who advocate abortion rights, he suggested, risk excommunication.
There are other signs of a public turn to the right: He is expected soon to approve the wider usage of the Latin Mass, largely shelved more than a generation ago. In recent months, the church in Italy has engaged outspokenly in a fight against a proposed law to give legal rights to unmarried couples, including homosexual ones.
Recently he spoke about the reality of hell and, despite a free discussion of the issue when he was first elected, he seemed to have firmly ruled out any changes to priestly celibacy as a way to alleviate a desperate shortage of priests in some places, Latin America included.
At the same time, the speech on Sunday underscored that Benedict remains, as ever, untethered to any set of views apart from his own.
In the speech, for example, he railed against abortion and contraception, as hurting the family, but he also called for state-sponsored day care, as helping it.
He also raged with equal fire against Marxism and capitalism. By focusing solely on material concerns, he said, they ''falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God.''
''Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves,'' he said. ''And this ideological promise has proven false.''
Marxism, he said, left ''a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction.'' Capitalism, he said, has failed to bridge the ''distance between rich and poor'' and is ''giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.''
But on the whole his speech covered ground familiar to those here -- some approving, others not -- who followed Cardinal Ratzinger's long career as theologian and top aide to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
''I like his zeal,'' said Maria da Conceição Xavier Cerqueira, a retired postal worker. He was among the faithful, many of whom carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun and rosaries to be blessed at an outdoor Mass that Benedict celebrated here on Sunday. ''He was a loyal comrade of John Paul II, and it is good that he is here to defend the traditional values of the Catholic Church, which are under attack from all sides.''
Without specifically mentioning liberation theology by name, Benedict, in his speech to the bishops, criticized Catholics who argue that the church's supreme moral duty is to denounce and resist social injustice. As the Vatican's senior official on matters of doctrine and faith, he led efforts in the 1980s to stamp out the movement, then quite influential in Latin America, and on Sunday he again warned the clergy not to permit such concerns to eclipse their spiritual duties.
''This political task is not the immediate competence of the church,'' he said. ''Respect for a healthy secularity -- including the pluralism of political opinions -- is essential in the authentic Christian tradition.
''If the church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice.''
But some worshipers at the Mass said they would have liked the pope to have offered the same emphasis on overcoming poverty that they are used to hearing from their own bishops. A group of liberation theology advocates carried a banner saying theirs was ''the church of the option for the poor and excluded,'' along with photographs of the movement's martyrs, including Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980, and Dorothy Stang, an American-born nun killed in the Brazilian Amazon in 2005.
''The Vatican is afraid of liberation theology, but it shouldn't be,'' said Alex Vigueras, a Chilean priest who spoke for the group, made up of priests, nuns or theology students from six different countries. ''The church can't afford to retreat. We have to react and bear Christian witness by continuing to speak out for the poor, the marginalized, the jailed, Indians and blacks, and in favor of human rights.''
The Brazilian Army estimated the crowd that filled the patio alongside the massive basilica here at 150,000 people, far short of the one million that Vatican Radio had predicted.
Later, in his speech to the clergy at the large shrine to the Virgin Mary here, the pope also offered what amounted to a revisionist history of the church's origins in Latin America.
The standard view in the region is that the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, accompanied by the clergy, imposed Catholicism in a ruinous process that left native populations, as a common phrase puts it, ''between the cross and the sword.''
Some modern-day Latin American theologians have lamented the destruction of indigenous civilizations and sought to incorporate elements of those cultures into the Mass as one way of making amends. But in a statement likely to be controversial in countries with large Indian populations, including Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, Benedict rejected that approach.
''In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,'' he said.
He added: ''The utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbus religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal church, would not be a step forward; indeed, it would be a step back'' and ''a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.''