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Brazil, Bolsonaro, Liberation Theology and the new attacks on the Church

Bolsonaro’s government is becoming well known for their paranoia against “invisible enemies,” one of their traits is to accuse the most unthinkable people/institutions to be leftists. After accusing BBC, The EU and The economist of being communists, Bolsonaro’s government has a new target: The Catholic Church! It might sound surprising and even random to many specially for non-Brazilians to hear that, but the truth is, The Catholic Church had and still has an important impact among social programs in Latin America, mostly thanks to the Theology of Liberation.

The Theology of Liberation is a non-partisan movement that started during the 70’s, their philosophy encompasses several streams of thought interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ as liberator of unjust social, political, and economic conditions. The movement is not based on the ecclesiastical interpretation of reality, but on the reality of poverty and exclusion. Its proponents have described it as an analytical and anthropological interpretation of the Christian faith.

But, by adding several currents of thought, the movement absorbed beliefs of Umbanda (an Afro-brazilian religion), Spiritism, Islam and even Shamanism.

Leonardo Boff Copyright:© Rafael Stedile

In spite of the internationalization of Liberation Theology, Latin America gathers its greatest representatives, such as the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Brazilian Leonardo Boff and the Uruguayan Juan Luis Segundo. According Leonardo Boff, the central point of Theology of Liberation is the concrete of the poor, its oppressions, the degradation of its lives and the sufferings without account that suffers. Without the poor and the oppressed there is no Liberation Theology, “Every oppression calls for a liberation.”

The Catholic Church dedicated two documents to Liberation Theology in the 1980s, considering it heretical and incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Just to give an historical political context the 3 countries were under military dictatorship during the “birth” of those ideas. Even though in Brazil, the majority of Catholics supported the dictatorship, many rebellious priests were very hands on fighting against the military’s authoritarian views and specially interested in protecting the poor workers and peasants that were being massacred by the government.

The oppressive police even monitored churches and masses, especially the ones happening in the biggest cities.  According to the Brazilian government at the time some priests were contaminated by the Marxism ideology and were using their power to spread subversive propaganda. The Ecumenical Documentation and Information Centre produced in 1988 a list of 12 forms of attack suffered by the Church: defamation, invasion, imprisonment, torture, murder, kidnapping, prosecution, subpoena, expulsion, censorship, prohibition and counterfeiting.

Between 1969 and 1981, there were 15 deaths or disappearances of clerics or lay people that were involved in the church’s social movements. People like, Father Antônio Henrique Pereira da Silva Neto, direct auxiliary of Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara. He was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Recife in May 1969, Santo Dias, leader of the Worker’s Pastoral , killed by a back shot fired by a military police officer during a strike in São Paulo, Alexandre Vanucchi Leme, a student at the University of São Paulo, who died of injuries caused by torture in the premises of the Second Army, in the capital of São Paulo.

And student leader Honestino Guimarães da Silva, a member of The Catholic Student Youth, arrested and tortured in, Rio, his body is still missing. Father João Bosco Burnier, murdered on 1976 the forces of repression in Conceição do Araguaia, he and the bishop D. Pedro Casaldaliga, defended women who were being tortured by militaries.

There were 18 cases of banishment or expulsion. Father James Murray was expelled, for celebrating Mass in black and for reading the Declaration of Human Rights during his homily. And the most famous case Frier Betto, arrested twice, he wrote his experiences during that dark period of the Dictatorship in books, the most famous Baptism of Blood, which tells about the involvement of Dominican Friers at the Ação Libertadora Nacional, a communist guerrilla group, the book was adapted and became a movie in 2006.

Santo Dias: Shot in the back by a soldier.

So, lets talk about present days: Bolsonaro’s government is trying to bring back that whole McCarthyist “communist threat” in 2019. In their vision, the Church is a traditional ally of the Worker’s Party (PT) and is organizing itself to lead debates with the left; the alert to the government came from reports from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin), headed by General Heleno, and military commandos; the reports are from recent meetings of Brazilian cardinals with Pope Francisco to discuss the Pan Amazonian Synod, which will gather in October in Rome, bishops from all continents.

The debate will address the situation of indigenous peoples, climate change caused by deforestation and quilombo and according to the article in the Estado de São Paulo, based on documents circulating in the Planalto, the Internal security military judged that sectors of the Church allied with social movements and leftist parties, members of the so-called ‘progressive clergy’, wanted to use the Synod to criticize the Bolsonaro’s government and gain international impact.

And of course their fears are being fed by all neopentecostal population that since day one were lining themselves with Bolsonaro.

Many theologists believe that the Theology of Liberation died, because many of their biggest supporters are dead or old, but their legacy is still very much alive.

In 1991, after almost a decade fighting with cardinals from Rome (in special Cardinal Ratzinger, latter the Pope Benedict XVI) Boff, wrote to the Vatican asking for a dispensation of his vows, and nowadays he’s a philosopher and social political activist.

Sources: Leonardo Boff’s blog:
Estado de São Paulo:
Baptism of Blood (movie trailer):


By Nathália Toledo Urban



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