The Church Moves Left

The most radical body of thought in Brazil
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CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters

The unopposed coup of April Fool’s Day, 1964, that deposed João Goulart as president of Brazil and brought to power the military government of Marechal Castelo Branco, was thought by many to have been triggered by a series of marches of several hundred thousand rosary-thumbing women in Brazil’s largest cities. Whether the importance of these pre-golpe marches is as great as the Reader’s Digest, for one, believed, is doubtful, but it is clear that the traditionally Catholic middle class, as well as the majority of the institutional Church, welcomed the coup for the social and political peace it brought. It is, therefore, an odd twist of fate that this much sought after peace is now being shaken by the Church itself. What is more interesting is the situation that is forcing the Church into the vanguard of the movement for social change: most of the Church is not happy with this turn of events, but it cannot escape without seeming to deny all that the post-Council Church preaches and stands for.

It is a simple fact that the Church’s teaching is now the most radical body of thought in Brazil, and that certain Catholic leaders, among the hierarchy and the laity, are the most revolutionary figures in Brazilian society. In the past couple of years, the Church has found itself in several tense predicaments with the government, each of which has forced her to declare her independence and to line up with the “other half” of the nation, which in Brazil is about 80 percent of the population. Historically the Church has been one of the bulwarks of the Brazilian government and a dependable ally of the rich in their defense of the status quo. For the Church to change its allegiance from the minority to the vast majority will no doubt affect all parts of Brazilian society; there is serious doubt whether the change can be completed without violence.

The first incident which shattered the modus vivendi between Church and military government involved Dom Helder Camara, the fiery Archbishop of Olinda-Recife, along with several other progressive bishops of the Northeast. In March 1966 three Catholic Action groups published a manifesto in which they denounced conditions of labor and existence in this area (which rivals India in its misery and poverty). They also criticized the government’s policy in suppressing unions which might have improved the lot of the worker. When Dom Helder and the other bishops supported the manifesto, the military command in the region countered by calling Dom Helder a subversive, agitator, Communist demagogue and an enemy of the people. At this point, ranks within and without the Church joined in support of Dom Helder and the laymen’s manifesto; they were opposed by those in the military and society who either thought Dom Helder was a Communist, or there was no problem in the Northeast, or both.

The predicament became increasingly acute until the situation was resolved in a meeting between the bishops and the then President Castelo Branco. They agreed to resolve problems “out of court,” i.e., out of the public eye. The incident demonstrated, that the government would react to the slightest criticism, even if it came from its traditional ally, the Church. On the other hand, many within the Church were elated by the government’s reaction, since they feel the Church will be nothing but a tool in Brazil until it breaks with a government that has anything but the best interests of the people in its heart. From then on many members of the clergy began to consider how they could create further tension.

When Marechal Costa e Silva became president in March 1967, he went out of his way to re-establish friendly relations with the Church. He visited the Pope before taking office, arranged to receive a Papal Legate bringing a gold rose as homage to the largest Catholic nation in the world, and has advertised the fact that he attends Mass regularly and even receives Communion. With the publication of the encyclical Populorum progressio, Costa e Silva immediately announced that this was exactly his program of government—which is more than the hierarchy did. Even when the rest of the government, at all levels, quickly moved to exploit the publicity value of the encyclical, the hierarchy stood by quietly. It is clear, therefore, that the government values the support of the Church and, given the rather weak moral legitimacy of the present regime, it probably couldn’t stand without it. Judging from recent events, however, this support is eroding.

Large segments of the lower clergy and roughly 20 bishops (out of a total of 236) are trying to break the connection of Church-state concord. One bishop told me recently that his goal is to distinguish that part of the Church under his responsibility from the government and from previous compromises with the status quo. It is all right for the Church and state to cooperate, but they must do so as equals and not with the government using the Church as a moral shield. Another bishop said that the Church must show the people that it is on their side and not on the side of those who are exploiting them. Bishops like these are in the minority, however; most are content to go along as before, cooperating with the government and not asserting any independence.

To force a break in this situation one priest explained that a kind of guerrilla strategy is necessary; internal contradictions must be created in the institutional Church so that it is forced to sever its connections with the social and political status quo. Only then will it be able to develop according to the Council and the social encyclicals; until then it will be powerless to change. Lately, this tactic has become widely accepted; a variant of it can be seen in a long manifesto, signed by some 300 priests and directed to their bishops during November 1967, which points out the tremendous social problems in Brazil and accuses the Church of remaining on the sidelines of national events, allowing inhuman situations to continue. They say that the Church is bound to a past society and that their efforts and energies are used up in administrative tasks without any real contact with the people. They want the Church to return to the prophetic mission of Christ. They deplore “the signs of evil and sin in salary frauds, in everyday starvation, in the exploitation of the people and the nation, and in suppression of liberty.” The document is, in effect, a denunciation of Brazilian society and of the institutional Church for not taking an active role in changing it. The reaction of the hierarchy was deliberate silence, although a few progressives welcomed it and suggested that all of their clergy sign it. Of course, 300 priests out of a total of 12,000 and a handful of bishops, might be dismissed as lunatics—or more popularly, as subversives. The central point is that the tensions between the Church and state generally are escalating, despite government and hierarchy efforts to smooth things over.

In the last few months three important conflicts between Church and government have arisen. The first took place when the bishop of Crateus in the Northeast held up Cuba as an example for the rest of Latin America to follow. He was immediately denounced as a Communist and a subversive; a senator led the attack. Shortly after this incident, the military closed down an archdiocese-owned radio station in São Luís de Maranhão for producing a program in which the independence of Brazil was questioned. This time it was the military versus the bishops, other clergy and laity in the archdiocese. The effects of both incidents spread to the national level, with those on the left defending the Church, and those on the right denouncing it as the tool of Communists. It was a more recent incident, however, which set the pattern that future conflicts undoubtedly will take.

In early November, four men were arrested and jailed by the military for distributing subversive and inflammatory material in Volta Redonda, a steel town fifty kilometers from Rio de Janerio. As all four were members of Church organizations and two lived with the bishop, the military then invaded the bishop’s palace and searched it for more material. The bishop, Dom Valdir Calheiros, protested but couldn’t locate anyone in the military command to listen to him. He therefore had an explanation printed and distributed at Mass on Sunday; the military replied by arresting three priests and five more laymen. Immediately the question took on national import, with denunciations hurled from all sides. Dom Valdir is known as a balanced cleric with more of a pastoral than social revolutionary bent, but even so his defense took on a revolutionary tone in the heat of the argument. Again, the progressives came out in favor of the Bishop, and in favor of the Church’s leading social change. As a non-Catholic leftist explained it: “We may as well support the Church in this situation as there is no other organized body in Brazil that can assume it; the Church is the only institution that has even a minimum amount of independence.”

On the other hand conservatives, effectively represented in the largest Brazilian papers, O Estado de São Paulo and Jornal do Brasil of Rio, cast the Church as an important part of Brazilian culture, but belonging in the sacristy and not in the world; thus, to enter into social matters is to be doing the work of Communists. The crisis grew steadily worse, with Costa e Silva making statements to the press and even on television that there was no problem—only a small misunderstanding. After two weeks of polemic the problem was temporarily resolved with a meeting of the Central Commission of the Bishops’ Conference. They studied the crisis and published a statement in which they asserted the unity of the Church, declared its independence from all outside control, and allied it on the side of the people. Whether they would have published such a lively document without the given provocation and all the high emotions attending it is doubtful. Most of the hierarchy probably will not take the statement seriously, but at least they are now down in print as independent and responsible to the people.

No sooner had this storm abated than the government indicated that it wanted the Papal Nuncio transferred. It considered him too involved with radical elements within the Church, and in addition objected that he would not approve transfers of non-desirable bishops to isolated dioceses. The Church-state debate was again revived and once again Costa e Silva stated that there was no problem; nevertheless, a commission on Church-state problems is being planned to replace the agreement made at the time of Castelo Branco and the Dom Helder Cāmara imbroglio. Most of the hierarchy favors the commission, so does the government certainly, but all progressives are against it, as they see an important function in the series of conflicts. They believe that with a few more of them the Church will have no recourse but to separate itself completely from the government, thereby freeing it for closer contact with the people.

This, therefore, is the present state of Church-state relations in Brazil. After centuries of accommodation to the status quo, some within the Church are waking to their responsibilities of helping man in this world. Most of the hierarchy and clergy have not yet accepted this new situation, and they, and the traditional attitude, are supported by the government and by Brazilian society as a whole. Nevertheless, the Council and the social encyclicals are quite explicit and progressives have spun a net of theology which supports them in the social field. They are assisted in their awareness by an inept government, and particularly by its military, that see any criticism as Communism. The more the Church criticizes the state, the more it is likely to be persecuted, which in turn should increase awareness and unity within it and with progressives in the society. As one bishop pointed out, “We welcome these conflicts and want more of them, for in this case Marx holds: we have nothing to lose but our chains.”

What makes the Church so important in Brazil and what can cause it to take a revolutionary position is the simple fact that there is no one else to take the lead. There is only a heavy-handed and not very able government, with support in the military and propertied classes, and on the other side is the Church. As there is nothing in between, all progressive elements are forced into alliance with the Church which in turn forces it ahead. It is still difficult to predict the outcome, but right now it seems that if the government breaks, the Church will have to assume leadership in society. Whether she is courageous enough or capable of doing so is a large question; another is whether the masses of Brazilians still sufficiently respect her to allow her to lead. Be that as it may, the Church probably will not have the liberty of refusing.

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