Benedict in Brazil

In 1985, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, officially silenced Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, forbidding him to teach, publish or preach on theological matters for a year. In the best tradition of radical priests, Boff embraced liberation theology, which fused Catholicism with a highly politicized "preferential option for the poor" that was based on a Marxist critique of the Brazilian economy.

Ratzinger may have rightly thought that he was pretty much done with the troublesome dean of Brazil's liberation theology movement. But today, in his first papal visit to the land of the bossa nova, Pope Benedict XVI (as Ratzinger is now known) will find himself in contention with Brazil's left-wing president -- a man who claims roots in the liberation theology that Boff began to preach preached by Boff in the 1970s and '80s.

"I'm a Christian, a friend of Leonardo Boff, of [liberation theology practitioners] Pedro Casaldaliga, of Frei Betto, of Pablo Evaristo Arns, etcetera, and I deeply regret that the Pope has imposed so many difficulties to the progressive church in Latin America," said Brazil's current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a 1998 interview with Jurnalo, a European online newspaper.

Until the year of Boff's silencing, Brazil suffered the under a military dictatorship that guarded the economy's feudal structure, where most of the land and means of production remained in the hands of the few while much of the country starved. During the time of the junta, Brazil's clerics spoke against military rulers and moneyed interests at great personal peril. To the Vatican, however, what seemed to matter most was not liberation theology's resistance to the torture and starvation of the people, but its use of the Marxist paradigm.

Despite the pope's best efforts, the liberation theology he tried so hard to quash remains an integral part of Brazilian culture, as Larry Rohter illustrated in Monday's New York Times. Indeed, the Dominican friar Frei Betto ( Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) was chosen to lead what Jurnalo calls "[President] Lula's trademark social programme," Zero Hunger.

After officially "silencing" Boff in 1985, Ratzinger found himself poised to do so a second time in the early 1990s, after the unrepentant Boff published a book celebrating the feminine aspects of the divine, calling for the ordination of women into the priesthood and for allowing priests to marry. But Boff essentially quit before Ratzinger could "fire" him, deciding to leave the priesthood and the Franciscan order that ordained him. Today he remains a major figure in Brazil's public life and contends that the Vatican has yet to recognize his resignation. In 2006, he urged Brazilians to re-elect Lula to a second term.

For his part, Frei Betto has famously embraced Fidel Castro, conducting, in 1987, the first in-depth interview with the Cuban dictator on the subject of religion. To be fair, Frei Betto has also criticized the Cuban government. He has argued, however, that Cuba's "social indices" (rates of literarcy, medical care and lack of hunger), comparatively high in Latin America, outweigh the negatives of Castro's rule. " I see various defects in the Cuban Revolution," he told New Renaissance magazine, "but the social successes are most important."

With its Marxist overtones, liberation theology's battle with the Vatican -- especially under the reign of the late Pope John Paul II, the proud son of Poland who is credited with helping to bring down the Soviet empire -- is often interpreted as a final vestige of the Cold War. But that's a simplistic reading.

The Cold War was fought against a centralized empire that forbade the public worship of God. Liberation theology manifests in an almost perfectly opposite form: it offers a highly decentralized structure for worship and political activity. It has flourished in Brazil, which has the largest Catholic population of any country, because it suits the culture of the nation's numerous poor people, empowering them to act on their own behalf and to practice their Catholic faith in a more charismatic form than is found in the urban churches run by the bishops. Brazil's 80,000 religious "base communities," the fruits of liberation theology, serve yet another practical purpose: like their counterparts in the United States and Europe, Brazilian Catholics suffer a lack of priests. Base communities center on worship led by laypeople.

Therein lies the church's great problem with liberation theology. It is threatened less by Marxist economic ideas than by the demand for a decentralized church led by worshippers, the practitioners who came to be known during the Second Vatican Council as "the people of God."

In Europe, as I wrote two weeks ago, the churches are empty while Catholic lay movements thrive. Poland is the most notable exception to the rule -- the one country to maintain unwavering loyalty to the institutional church in the decades following the bloody destruction of World War II. During Poland's Herculean struggle against the Soviet Union, the Vatican played the role of liberator; it provided critical support to the anti-Soviet movement. To that end, the centralized institutional infrastructure served brilliantly, and the Catholic identity of one Slavic people became the symbol of differentiation between them and their non-Catholic Slavic overlords.

In Brazil, the history of the European church is less noble. It often sided with the interests of wealthy land-owners who maintained the chasm between themselves and the nation's abjectly poor masses. One need only look at the history of the right-wing Catholic movement Tradition, Family and Property to get a taste of that reality. The Vatican, along with political and business interests, managed to stifle liberation theology in much of Latin America, but never succeeded in Brazil, where the new form was born. Like the bossa nova, which literally translates to "new trend," liberation theology survives in Brazil in part because of its birth as a genuine expression of the nation's own culture.

Today, the media are rife with reasons for Benedict's voyage to Brazil. He's said to come to help to stem the tide of conversions from Catholicism to Pentecostal Protestant sects, or to warn Brazilians of the spiritual peril of abortion, contraception and female empowerment. He'll no doubt do the latter, but I doubt he's journeyed so far to do the former. Benedict has claimed not to be troubled by the falling away of Catholics in the Western world; he'd rather have a small number of loyal, obedient adherents to the faith, it's been said, than a large number who make up their own rules. His interaction with Lula, who supports the distribution of condoms for HIV-AIDS prevention, will no doubt be telling, as will be his meetings with Brazil's bishops.

Published schedules do not make clear whether he will invite members of Brazil's right-wing Catholic groups to any of the events over which he will preside. But no matter what his agenda, Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Sao Paulo having done for Brazil's liberation theology movement what the Soviet Union did for Polish Catholicism: strengthened its cultural role in the life of everyday people.

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