`Bishop of the slums' -- Dom Hélder Camara and Brazil's church of the poor

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Dom Hélder Camara.

By Barry Healy

July 14, 2009 -- This year marks the centennial of the birth and the tenth anniversary of the death of one of the most significant religious figures of the 20th century, an instigator of the liberation theology trend in Latin American Catholicism and a campaigner against military dictatorship: Dom Hélder Camara.

Dom Hélder could have advanced himself to the position of cardinal and from there, who knows, possibly to the papacy itself. Instead, he stood for democracy in Brazil, despite threats to his life and certainly at the expense of his career. He represented the most extreme point that the Catholic hierarchy could go in standing with the poor in the tumultuous era following the Cuban Revolution and the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).

Remembering Dom Hélder Camara is poignant in these times when the Vatican bureaucracy is headed by Benedict XVI, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, oppressed the Latin American church precisely because of its identity with the poor.

Under Dom Hélder's wing thousands of Catholic religious (priests, nuns and brothers) and countless numbers of the laity reached profoundly revolutionary conclusions about Latin American reality. Many of the progressive governments now in power in the region can trace their roots to the movement that he championed.

This is not to say that he was a revolutionary. Essentially, he was a pious and spiritual man who, while living out a commitment to humility in the service of God, none the less, under the force of the times he lived in, chose to articulate the suffering of the poor and acted consistently in alignment with those words.

The independent trade union movement, the Workers Party (PT) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST), all vital in the fight for Brazilian democracy, arose in the early 1980s as a product of the liberationist trend that he championed.

In times of extreme class polarisation, if people of good faith forthrightly stand upon their convictions they find themselves driven by history to play a revolutionary role. Dom Hélder was such a person; Abraham Lincoln was another example.

Born on February 7, 1909, Dom Hélder became auxiliary archbishop of Rio de Janeiro in April 1955. He quickly made a name for himself for denouncing the city's social and racial divisions.

He initiated a housing project for the poor and established a permanent campaign of charity for the needy. He soon acquired an international reputation as the "bishop of the slums".

Dom Hélder achieved national prominence by lobbying the government for development programs aimed at helping the masses. His political clout was reflected when he became one of the main advisers of President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961).

Kubitschek promoted modernisation through rapid industrialisation via foreign capital investment, government-led reforms and the transfer of the national capital city from Rio to Brasilia.

Through the National Council of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) Dom Hélder aligned the Catholic Church with Kubitschek’s development model. For example, the bishops played a crucial role in the sparking an ambitious government program aimed at bringing industry to Brazil's impoverished north-east.

However, Brazil's modernisation, carried on after Kubitschek by President Joan Goulet, had many powerful enemies, not least of which was the US government. An independent Latin America did not fit with US policy, especially in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.

During 1963 and 1964 Brazil became extremely polarised. Dom Hélder moved to the left, eventually resulting in a complete break with the country's rich elite. He publicly stated that the elite were responsible for the failure of the Alliance for Progress, President John F. Kennedy’s anti-communist attempt to head off the influence of the Cuban Revolution through mild social reform.

Led by Dom Hélder, the CNBB published one of the most radical statements in the history of the Brazilian Catholic Church. Astonishingly, the church advocated the expropriation and transfer of land to the poor. Dom Hélder campaigned in support of President Goulart's efforts to implement a redistribution of land and other basic reforms and literacy programs for the poor. When military conspiracies swirled around the Goulart presidency, Dom Hélder spoke against them, alienating him from the last of his friends in the elite.

At the same time, in Vatican II discussions, Dom Hélder infuriated conservative bishops and traditionalists with his progressive positions, particularly the concept of a dialogue with Marxism. In early 1964, the reactionary traditionalists successfully had him shuffled off to an obscure archdiocese.

However, another bishop’s sudden death forced the church to return him to Olinda and Recife, a centre of progressive political and cultural ferment.

On March 31, 1964, President Goulart was overthrown at the behest of the USA. Brazil would not return to democracy until 1985.

Radical Catholic social policy

Soon after the coup, Dom Hélder's enemies within the CNBB assembled the numbers to roll him and his supporters and conservatise the organisation. But they could not hold back the radicalisation of the grassroots church and the CNBB would continually find itself thrust forwards.

Dom Hélder initially took a traditional Catholic stance towards the new coup regime, positing himself as a pastor for all. That is, he kept in communication with the leaders of the new order. General Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco, the first military president, attended his church to listen to some of his sermons. This was despite the fact that the army was targeting the area around Recife for the worst repression, and Dom Hélder was speaking loudly on behalf of the political prisoners.

Dom Hélder was attempting to articulate a radical version of Catholic social policy which was as anti-communist as it was anti-capitalist. He sought a non-violent, humanistic social revolution to create a welfare state which would modernise and develop a non-aligned, democratic Brazil.

In the harsh reality of late-1960s Latin America, where the CIA organised dirty wars to torture and slaughter innumerable progressives, even such mild social reformism as Dom Hélders was dangerous. The fact that he resolutely stood for it in the face of repression inspired millions to find more radical solutions.


This was the period in which the Colombian revolutionary priest Camilo Torres chose to join a guerrilla army as a combatant; Brazilian conservatives accused Dom Hélder of following in the footsteps of Che Guevara!

In 1967 Dom Hélder attempted to launch a third political party, the Party of Integral Development, as an alternative to the two official parties allowed to operate by the military regime. The following year he initiated a non-violent movement called "Action, Justice and Peace”. Both these attempts foundered on the rock of harsh military repression.

Half way through 1968, Latin American bishops met in Medellin, Colombia, to discuss applying the results of Vatican II to the region. Dom Hélder argued successfully for a proposal for a radical but peaceful social transformation.

The Medellin statement was a landmark in the history of liberation theology and Latin American politics. The statement denounced the "institutionalised violence" inherent in social inequality and oppressive social structures. It proclaimed the “option for the poor”, whereby the church should stand with the most oppressed in their daily struggles. The conference encouraged the creation of Eclesiais Comunidades de Base (Basic Ecclesial Communities), where small groups of Catholics would gather to join their faith to the social struggles surrounding them.

This “conscientisation” or awareness-raising method spread rapidly throughout Latin America and became enmeshed in such things as the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and, more recently, the Lavalas movement in Haiti (which, ironically, is now being repressed by Brazilian troops operating under a UN peacekeeping mandate).

Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez is the most prominent advocate of this trend today and Venezuela's revolution is suffused with it.

Following Medellín, thousands of priests, religious and lay volunteers all over Latin America become activists with the poor against the governments the United States had imposed on them. Very quickly many radicalised as the Medellin declaration's profession of non-violence met the reality of the military iron fist.


The Brazilian generals replied to Medellin in December 1968: they decreed absolute dictatorship, suspending civil liberties and press freedom and shutting down parliament. The security forces were completely let off the leash, not only against the growing guerrilla movement but against all opponents.

Dom Hélder was hounded by the secret police and in May 1969, a death squad murdered one of his young assistant priests. In November 1969, the military succeeded in killing the urban guerrilla leader Carlos Marighella. Simultaneously, the regime imprisoned and tortured Dominican friars and other priests accused of collaborating with him.

A picture of the depth of the radicalisation underway is reflected in this exchange that the Brazilian liberation theologian and Dominican priest Frei Betto recalled in his memoir. It is a conversation he had with his torturer when the military captured him:

How can a Christian collaborate with a communist?

-- For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.

Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?

-- It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself.

In May 1970, in a speech in Paris, Dom Hélder used his international prestige to publicly denounce Brazilian government torture. He highlighted the case of Tito de Alencar Lima, a Dominican priest who was tortured and driven to suicide by the security forces. Since 1964, Dom Hélder had worked and spoken of behalf of political prisoners within Brazil, but never internationally.

The Paris speech enraged the Brazilian generals, who were sensitive to their international image. They were presenting themselves to the world as technocrats, driving a Brazilian economic miracle. The generals launched a nationalistic "Brazil: love it or leave it” campaign in answer to Dom Hélder. More than that, military press censorship deleted all references to him in Brazilian publications; he became a non-person in Brazil until censorship was relaxed somewhat in 1977.

Behind his back, church conservatives organised against him while the government worked internationally to prevent him being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Even the Vatican gave him the cold shoulder.

Stymied within Brazil, Dom Hélder arranged a simple division of labour: he continued the international campaign for Brazilian democracy while Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns took up the battle within the country.

Within his See of Olinda and Recife, Dom Hélder continued important experiments in church democracy. He delegated many responsibilities, developing an activist board of lay people and priests for diocesan administration. Together with other activists, they established a network of grassroots communities known as Encontro de Irmãos (Meeting of Brothers). A Justice and Peace Commission campaigned for human rights.

Liberation theology

In the 1970s, the CNBB and many individual bishops bravely spoke out for human rights in the face of the dictatorship. Holding true to the Medellin Declaration, the Basic Ecclesial Communities flourished and Brazilian theologians were in the forefront of the development of liberation theology.

Church bodies such as the Pastoral Land Commission and the Indian Missionary Council organised Brazil's landless and Indigenous peoples. The church sheltered the development of the renewed trade union movement that was to erupt on a massive scale in the 1980s, leading to the formation of the PT -– and eventually the election of Lula as Brazil's president.

The church was one of the bulwarks of the broad opposition which returned the country to civilian rule; it was truly a church of the poor.

In the arena of church reform, Dom Hélder developed the radical Seminário Regional do Nordeste II (SERENE II) in the footsteps of Vatican II. Rather than closeting seminarians away from the world, SERENE II students lived in homes in poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns, tasting the reality of the option for the poor. Some SERENE II students did pastoral work in the huge sugarcane industry, where powerful landowners' thinking had not moved far from Brazil's colonial era. Other seminarians participated in a program called "theology of the hoe", working among the rural poor.

Conservative Catholics railed against SERENE II's methods. They were horrified by the number of seminarians who left the priesthood for marriage and the controversial feminist theologians who came out of it. Also raising the conservatives' ire was the Theological Institute of Recife (ITER), which taught theology to poor Catholics and lay activists wanting to apply it in their communities.

Dom Hélder retired as archbishop in 1985, the same year that the military relinquished power. Pope John Paul II, through the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the feared Cardinal Ratzinger, was quietly replacing retiring Latin American bishops with Opus Dei conservatives.

The reactionaries moved quickly after Dom Hélder’s retirement, replacing him with one of their own, Dom José Cardoso Sobrinho. Most of Dom Hélder’s progressive practices were abolished.

Dom Jose became notorious for calling in the police to attack rebellious priests and lay Catholics. SERENE II and ITER were shut down in 1989 on Vatican orders.

Until his death on August 27, 1999, Dom Hélder remained silent, returning to the role of priestly obedience. Despite this twilight period, his role in leading the Brazilian Catolic Church in its most radical period is exemplary. Had he remained silent under the dictatorship, Dom Hélder could have at least obtained the prestigious See of Rio de Janero, if not a Cardinal's hat. Instead, he lived in permanent fear of assassination and encouraged millions.

Today, it is secular Latin American political forces, inspired by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who have taken up and developed his message.

However, it is to Dom Hélder’s honour that the liberationist movement that he unleashed is still sweeping Latin America.