DURING the worst years of Brazil's military dictatorship – from 1968 to 1978 – over 120 bishops, priests and nuns and nearly 300 Catholic layworkers were arrested. Many were tortured. Seven clerics were murdered. Thirty bishops suffered death threats, accusations, kidnappings, or physical violence. Churches and parochial houses were raided. Church newspapers and radio stations were closed down or censored.
Unlike many of their Latin American counterparts, Brazil's Catholic bishops openly criticized the dictators. They espoused a theology that actively defended the rights of the oppressed by taking ‘an option for the poor', in the words of liberation theology's Peruvian originator Gustavo Gutierrez.
As Leonardo Boff, Brazil's most irreverent but influential exponent of the new thinking, pointed out: ‘Jesus was a political prisoner, who died on the Cross, not an old man who died in bed.'
In 1984, in the twilight years of the dictatorship, Boff came under attack – not from the generals this time, but from the Vatican.
He was summoned to Rome to be questioned about one of his books. Boff realized that what was really on trial was the Brazilian church's overwhelming endorsement and adoption of liberation theology. So he asked two of Brazil's leading Catholic cardinals to go with him. One of them, Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of the the world's largest Catholic diocese of São Paulo, invited Joseph Ratzinger, the Cardinal in charge of questioning Boff, to come to Brazil and see for himself the shantytowns and slums. Then perhaps he could understand where the church was working and why liberation theology was so popular.
But Ratzinger, a member of the Pope's inner circle and head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, refused. He claimed his obligation was to the universal church not a local one.
Boff pointed to the lattice window of the room they were in and said: ‘Cardinal, you cannot look at liberation theology through a window like this, where it is framed in little lead squares. You have to go and feel what it's like to be poor. That's where this theology is made, it's the cry of the poor.'
Boff was later banned from preaching and celebrating the sacraments and has since reluctantly left the priesthood. Cardinal Arns' São Paulo diocese was drastically reduced in size. Conservative bishops were appointed by the Pope to run the new sees thus created.
This illustrates a fundamental clash: between institutional religion, which counts on the support of the established powers, and a kind of faith that nourishes and inspires social justice.
Brazil's bishops wanted a new Latin American church, a Church of the poor, not for the rich, a church of liberation, not domination. They wanted change, not accommodation, because they said the Kingdom of Heaven began on earth, here and now, not after death. For them fatalism was not an option.
But to Pope John Paul II it all sounded too much like Marxism – which his Polish background told him could only be inimical to faith.
Gradually but systematically, all over Latin America, he replaced leftwing senior clerics with rightwingers, some of them connected with Opus Dei. Radical priests and nuns left the church in droves, and the heydey of liberation theology seemed to be over.
But not in Brazil, where the theology of liberation has entered the bloodstream and remains there.
The answer lies, to a large extent, in the geography and history of Brazil. Its gigantic size, covering half of South America, means that priests have always been thinly spread. Some Amazon prelacies are the size of European countries. So church influence and control has been patchy. At the same time Brazilian society developed in a more informal, less hierarchical way than its Hispanic neighbours. The population, perhaps without a priest for months on end, evolved their own, more festive religious celebrations.
An episcopate of over 300 bishops, representing both violent megacities like São Paulo, and semi-feudal rural zones like the Northeast, means a plurality of experience. Diversity encourages tolerance, symbolized in attitudes towards sexual behaviour. A recent poll of 758 priests revealed that 41 per cent had had some sort of a relationship, including sexual, with a woman after ordination. Almost half, 48 per cent, want optional celibacy. There was little agreement with the Pope's view that homosexuality is ‘evil' either – 68 per cent do not see it as a sin.
But more important still is the role that liberation theology has played in the creation of Brazil's most energetic movements for social justice.
The Movimento Sem Terra (MST) – Movement of Landless Rural Workers – has its origins in the Pastoral Land Commission set up in 1975 by bishops in the Amazon basin. The Commission was created to combat the growth of violent land conflicts which saw thousands of peasant families evicted from their farms and smallholdings.
The Pastoral Land Commission soon spread all over Brazil as hundreds of thousands of small farmers were expelled from their land by new hydroelectric dams, farm mechanization and government- funded cattle ranching.
It was also one of the first organizations to denounce the existence of slave labour in the Amazon region. The church offered an unrivalled logistical network with its nationwide organization, providing safe places for meetings, telephones and transport – all things the small farmers themselves usually did not have.
Father Arnaldo Fritzen, parish priest of Ronda Alta in Rio Grande do Sul, was a typical example. He began by sheltering 78 homeless families in his church, and then encouraged them to meet and talk about the problem. He read from Exodus about the exile of the Israelites in Egypt. People immediately said ‘that's us – searching for a promised land.'
When they decided to occupy a large unworked estate, it was Father Arnaldo who led the convoy of lorries, in his little white Volkswagen ‘Beetle' car. Every day he visited the families to say mass and keep up morale.
When the time came for the landless farmers to start their own organization, the Movement of Landless Rural Workers in 1984, Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga declared: ‘If the movement learns to walk on its own feet, it will go much further.' And so it was decided that the MST would be independent of the church, of the trade unions and of political parties.
Jesus was a political prisoner, who died on the Cross, not an old man who died in bed
Liberation theology was also a strong influence in the creation of the Workers Party (PT) – an alliance of trade unionists and the progressive section of the Catholic church. As Brazil returned to civilian rule in the 1980s, many men and women left their ‘ ecclesiastical base communities' to enter politics or trade unions. Lula, or Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftwing former trade-union leader elected to the presidency in 2002, counts a Dominican brother, Frei Betto, as one of his closest advisers. Betto, imprisoned during the military dictatorship, recently became head of the hunger alleviation programme, Fome Zero (Zero Hunger).
Being today so closely associated with Government, you might expect more tolerance from Brazil's radical bishops. But they don't appear to have lost their critical faculties.
The bishops are especially critical of Lula's decision to maintain what they call a ‘neoliberal macro-economic policy' in close agreement with the International Monetary Fund. In a recent analysis of the situation they said it means ‘o rabo abana o cachorro' – the tail is wagging the dog. Their concern focuses on the tendency to subordinate job creation and greater spending on health, education and land reform to the goal of narrowly defined economic stability. As a result, some social movements, after years of partnership with the Workers Party, are undecided about support for Lula's policies.
The bishops are especially concerned with the situation of indigenous people – criticizing those sectors within the Government who see the demarcation of indigenous land as an obstacle to national sovereignty.
They also note that Lula's election has not yet produced a reduction in violence against the poor – in 2003 more than 20 indigenous leaders were assassinated, 35,000 people were evicted from their land and police killed hundreds of mostly unarmed people in city favelas. The bishops see it as their responsibility to remind Lula of his promises on social justice. They want him to remain faithful to his origins.
As priest Joao Xerri says: ‘Lula's not a messianic figure, he's the product of a process. So if he fails, a whole process fails. He carries the dreams of people like us; if he fails it means that we have failed.'
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