Justice Vs Vatican [Brazil]
While the Vatican hammers out
its rightwing and authoritarian line, Brazil's 'red bishops' continue
to plough a quite different furrow
by Jan Rocha
New Internationalist magazine,
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 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
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 right-wingers,
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
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
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
Father Arnaldo Fritzeu, 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.
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
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.'
Writer and journalist Jan Rocha is a founder
member of the Brazilian human rights organization CLAMOR. Her
latest book, Cuffing the Wire: the history of Brazil's Landless
Movement, is co-authored with Sue Branlord and published by LAB,