* Priest defends homosexuality, open marriages
* Excommunication follows warnings to toe Church line
By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 30 (Reuters) - The Catholic Church has excommunicated a Brazilian priest after he defended homosexuality, open marriage and other practices counter to Church teaching in online videos.
In a statement released late on Monday, the priest's diocese said Father Roberto Francisco Daniel, known to local parishioners as Padre Beto, had "in the name of 'freedom of expression' betrayed the promise of fealty to the Church."
The priest "injured the Church with grave statements counter to the dogma of Catholic faith and morality." The actions amount to "heresy and schism," the statement said, the penalty for which is excommunication, or expulsion from the Church.
The rare punishment follows what Daniel's bishop and the priest himself said were repeated rebukes about the videos and other public activities, such as a radio broadcast and local newspaper column, in which he challenged Church doctrine.
The 47-year-old cleric, who studied theology in Germany, is popular in the southeastern city of Bauru, where he has been a priest since 2001. He is known for his rock T-shirts, a silver stud pierced through his right ear and his habit of posing, as on his official Facebook page, with a glass of beer.
On Facebook and Twitter, Daniel posted a brief statement about the excommunication: "I feel honored to belong to the long list of people who have been murdered and burned alive for thinking and searching for knowledge."
SPREAD OF MODERATE VIEWS
Daniel's excommunication, which prompted headlines across Brazil and protests in social media, illustrates the rising influence of more moderate social views in Brazil, Latin America's biggest country, and much of the rest of the region.
Progressive stances on sexuality, birth control, scientific research and other delicate topics for the Church are increasingly common in Latin America, home to 42 percent of the world's Catholics, more than any other region worldwide.
The shifting views are among the many challenges faced by Pope Francis, an Argentine who ascended in March to become the first Latin American pope in history.
The excommunication comes just two months before Francis is scheduled to attend World Youth Day, expected to attract as many as 2 million young Catholics to Rio de Janeiro.
Though Francis is known to be a traditionalist on social issues and Church doctrine, his appointment raised hopes that the first non-European pope in 13 centuries would do more than his predecessors to modernize Catholicism.
But Daniel's beliefs clearly went too far for church leaders.
In one of the recent videos he posted on YouTube.com and his own Website, the priest said a married person who chose to have an affair, heterosexual or otherwise, would not be unfaithful as long as that person's spouse allowed it. "If someone is in an extramarital relationship and that relationship is accepted by the spouse, then faithfulness still exists there," he said.
A "REBEL SON"
In a telephone interview, Daniel said his statements "are personal reflections that should be considered and discussed in the dialogue of the church." The excommunication, he said, is "the sad act of a lukewarm and disengaged church that is out of touch with today's society."
The diocese retained a church expert in canonical law to oversee the excommunication process. The diocese also initiated a separate process at the Vatican through which Daniel will be stripped of clerical authority.
Last Tuesday, Bishop Caetano Ferrari gave Daniel a letter asking him to take the videos offline and publicly retract his statements. In an interview posted on the diocese Web site shortly afterward, Ferrari called Daniel "brilliant," but characterized him as a "rebel son" who "crosses the line."
On Monday, Daniel said he went to the diocese headquarters planning to renounce his clerical duties rather than retract any of his comments. But before he had a chance, the bishop and canonical expert made him face a committee of Church officials.
"It was a trial," Daniel said. "I told them I was not there to be tried, that I had not been indicted."
Shortly afterward, the Church issued the statement announcing his excommunication. (Editing by Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman)