By Hilary White

ROME, May 12, 2010 ( – During a flight to Lisbon, Portugal this week, Pope Benedict was asked whether the famous Message of Fatima from the Blessed Virgin Mary to three children in 1917 could apply to the Church and its suffering over the clerical sexual abuse of minors.

Benedict replied, “We may see that attacks against the Pope and the Church do not only come from outside; rather, the sufferings of the Church come from inside the Church, from the sin that exists in the Church.”

“This was always common knowledge, but today we see it in truly terrifying form: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but is born of sin within the Church.”

Benedict said that the solution lies in the “need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice.”

In remarks to dignitaries upon his arrival in Lisbon, the pope addressed secularism and cultural and religious “pluralism.”

“Living in a plurality of value systems and ethical structures” requires that Christians undertake a “journey” to the “nucleus of Christianity” to “reinforce the quality of our witness” and “discover the paths of the mission that lead even to the radical choice of martyrdom,” he said.

The pope also warned against the tendency in modern culture of “isolating” the present “from the cultural legacy of the past.” The emphasis on the “present” he said, “clashes with the powerful cultural tradition of the Portuguese people, deeply marked by the millenary influence of Christianity and by a sense of global responsibility.”

This abandonment of cultural history, the pope said, has created a “crisis of truth” in society. “Yet only truth can provide direction and trace the path of a fulfilled existence both for individuals and for a people.”

The encroachment of secularism among Catholics, and in traditionally Catholic countries like Portugal, has been a major theme of Benedict’s pontificate, one which he emphasizes in nearly all his public communications. His solution, as seen in his efforts to re-establish traditional liturgical practices in the Church, has been to re-connect modern societies and people of the west to their historical Christian roots.

He often speaks of the need to heal this historical and cultural “rupture,” identifying it as a cause of disintegration within and without the Church. Last week, he brought these points to the visiting bishops of Belgium, pointing out that there has been a “diminution in the number of baptized people who openly bear witness to their faith and their membership of the Church.” To this he linked the increase in age of priests and religious and “the lack of ordained and consecrated people” to carry out the Church’s mission.

This week Pope Benedict said that Portugal’s increasing secularization is an opportunity for “dialogue” towards an integration of “faith and modern rationality into a single anthropological vision which completes the human being.”

“I would say that secularism is normal, but separation and contrast between secularism and the culture of faith is anomalous and must be overcome. The great challenge of the current time is for the two to meet and thus discover their true identity. This, as I have said, is a mission for Europe and the [great] human need of our own history.”

Despite the still-overwhelming Catholicity of the Portuguese people, recent political struggles in Portugal have seen the country sliding towards political secularism with increasing power for leftist forces that have worked to liberalize abortion and legitimize homosexual relations. This slide was made manifest in 2005 when the Socialists won an absolute majority in a general election, the first in the party’s history.

In 2007, a referendum was held by the Socialist-led government that, although legally inconclusive due to lack of voter turn-out, led to the passing of legislation legalizing abortion on demand in the first ten weeks of pregnancy.