Brazil: Liberation Theology Continues Nourishing Communities

Article excerpt

By José Pedro S. Martins

Maria das Dores da Silva has four children and is a trash collector in Santa Rita, one of the municipalities with the highest concentration of low-income families in Paraíba state in northeastern Brazil. In the barrios of Marcos Moura and Tibiri II, where Santa Rita's most vulnerable people live, many homes have at most two rooms and house four to six people. Like many trash collectors in the community, Maria das Dores barely knows how to read or write. She only began to learn recently by participating in a process that led to October 2009 foundation of the Cooperativa de Reciclagem de Marcos Moura (COOREMM). The trash collected by the cooperative will be sorted and sent for recycling. The cooperative's organization was sorted by the Fundo Juntos pela Educação.

"It's very good to read and write, we don't' have to sign with our finger," said Maria das Dores. She was referring to Brazilian illiterate people's practice of "signing" many documents with their fingerprints, for example when they participate in gubernatorial elections.

Organizing the trash collectors of Marcos Moura in Santa Rita was encouraged by the Centro de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos Dom Oscar Romero (CEDHOR), a local agency whose activities are clearly inspired by liberation theology, which flourished in Latin America beginning in the 1960s and which conservative sectors have accused of being associated with ideas and practices typical of leftist political groups.

Brazil's Catholic Church was at forefront of liberation theology

The Brazilian Catholic Church, specifically, was strongly influenced by the tenets of liberation theology. Names that have become a reference in the struggle for human rights in general, agrarian reform, and the rights of indigenous peoples in particular, such as Hélder Câmara, the late archbishop of Recife, Tomás Balduíno, bishop emeritus of Goiás, and Paulo Evaristo Arns, cardinal archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, have been connected to the ideals of liberation theology, especially in supporting Christian base communities (CBCs), spaces, meeting places with a large presence of lay people.

During the papacy of John Paul II, far-reaching changes took place in Brazil's Catholic Church hierarchy, with liberation theology apparently losing its influence on the majority of bishops. During this 27-year period, many bishops who supported liberation theology were replaced or retired.

Nevertheless, in practice, the preferential option for the poor, one of the pillars of liberation theology and the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s--which was strengthened at the Conferencia General del Episcopado Latinoamericano, in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979)--remained an essential resource for the CBCs and for pastoral work in Latin America in general and Brazil in particular. Liberation theology, in short, continues finding echo in many religious, lay people, men and women in Brazil, despite all the cyclical changes that occur within the Catholic Church.

More alive than ever, says eminent theologian

"Liberation theology is more alive than ever. It has simply been unable to generate the publicity, to be, now more than ever, a reality," said Pedro Casaldáliga, bishop emeritus of the Prelazia de São Félix do Araguaia, in Mato Grosso state, another stellar figure in the progressive church, who was nourished with the concepts and practices typical of liberation theology.

Dom Pedro is a well-known defender of the rights of indigenous peoples and other people of the Amazonía, the immense forest that covers a large part of Brazil and other countries. …