The faithful laity had reason to be wary of the Amazon synod before it even began—if only because a well-known ally of liberation theologians like Cláudio Cardinal Hummes was appointed first to the pre-synodal council and then as relator general of the synod itself. And yet, at least outside Latin America, such concerns have focused almost exclusively on issues of a theological or philosophical nature.
The little-known truth is that, for over 40 years, Cardinal Hummes has been on close terms with former members of now-defunct terrorist and guerrilla organizations—individuals who not only show no signs of repentance for their past crimes but have, in some cases, continued to defend their heinous actions.
To understand the disturbing nature of Hummes’s relationships and their significance for the Amazon Synod, we must go back to the 1960s, when his future associates were joining up with terrorist and guerrilla groups opposed to the Brazilian government.
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There was no peaceful democratic transfer of power between opposing parties in Brazil for the more than seven decades between 1889 and 1961. The man who became president in the latter year, Jânio Quadros, resigned less than seven months after taking office. His successor Joao João Goulart—considered at the time to be the chief of Brazilian Peronism—embraced the Brazilian Communist Party, worked to establish stronger ties between Brazil and the Eastern Bloc, and began taking steps to establish state control of his country’s major businesses.
Under the circumstances, a large segment of the Brazilian population called for a military coup—not to establish a dictatorship, but to defend against one. Professor Anthony James Joes of St. Joseph’s University, an expert in guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency, argues that, in the Brazilian political tradition, the army was expected to intervene when necessary to preserve the constitution. Brazilians viewed a potential coup in much the same way we would understand a congressional impeachment of an American president.
The immediate impetus for the coup was Goulart’s threat to effectively destroy Brazil’s congress and alter its constitution to suit his own agenda. This took place at the height of the Cold War and shortly after the success of the Cuban Revolution. The people of Brazil feared that Goulart would become a new Castro, or even a new Lenin.
Whatever the wisdom of that arrangement, and however much we may deplore the cycle of military takeovers and caudillismo, Brazil got its coup in 1964. In the “golpe de 64,” the Brazilian armed forces led by Field Marshal Humberto Castelo Branco overthrew Goulart and ruled by a quasi-democratic junta for 20 years.
In his invaluable book Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Joes argues that “the taking of power by the military was more the excuse than the cause of the subsequent urban insurgency or terrorism,” given that “many of those who organized or participated in urban insurgency after the 1964 coup had been members of the Brazilian Communist Party or students of Communist guerrilla techniques (or both) for years before 1964.”
In any event, the insurgency did come. Throughout the 1960s, the nation of Brazil was besieged from within by left-wing terrorist groups.
One of the leading terrorist organizations which waged the insurgency campaign was Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), founded and led by Carlos Marighella, a leading theoretician of terrorist warfare whose writings are studied in terrorist training centers throughout the world—including those of al-Qaeda, the Basque separatists of Spain, and Italy’s infamous Red Brigades. A key component of its strategy was to provoke government forces to commit brutal, excessive reprisals, which could then be used to discredit the state while creating sympathy for the terrorists. Unfortunately, too many members of the Brazilian military took the bait. To this day, the Brazilian Left uses the atrocities which the ALN provoked to tar the country’s former government.
In 1969, the ALN and the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (MR-8) kidnapped the United States ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick. His captors demanded the release of 15 prisoners in exchange for his release, threatening to kill him if an agreement was not reached within 48 hours. Their success proved to be the ALN’s undoing. As soon as Elbrick was safe, the Brazilian government began a rigorous counter-insurgency campaign. Marighella was dead in a matter of months. The mastermind behind the kidnapping, Joaquim Câmara Ferreira, was at first successfully smuggled out of Brazil, but was later tracked down and killed.
Among those who had aided Ferreira’s temporary escape from justice was a member of the Order of Preachers, Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo—widely known as Frei Betto. He belonged to a network of Dominican friars who supported the ALN by providing its members with hideouts and logistical support. He was himself arrested shortly after Ferreira crossed the border and sentenced to four years in prison. While in jail, he befriended Dilma Rousseff, a member of Comando de Libertação Nacional, a guerrilla group that specialized in using violent methods to obtain funding for left-wing movements, and which became famous for its bungled attempt on the life of the Bolivian army captain thought to have captured Che Guevara. Rousseff had been convicted of participating in a bank robbery and has since attempted to defend herself, not by denying the unambiguous fact that she belonged to a guerrilla organization, but by claiming that she never personally took part in acts of violence or theft.
Cláudio Hummes was appointed Bishop of Santo Andre by Pope St. Paul VI in 1975, not long after the demise of the ALN and of the release of prominent terrorists and guerrillas from prison. Three years after taking office as ordinary, Hummes appointed Frei Betto as an advisor to the diocese’s Pastoral Operaria, an office of the Brazilian episcopal conference that professes to advance Catholic social teaching, but which many describe as a front for left-wing activists.
The Dominican remained in that role until 2003, a period which included the remainder of Hummes’s tenure as bishop of the diocese and ended in the year of his immediate successor’s death. During his time in the Pastoral Operaria, Frei Betto published a book glorifying his and his fellow Dominicans’ work in support of the ALN terrorists, to which he gave the blasphemous title Baptism of Blood.
The late 1970s also saw Hummes begin to collaborate with union leader Lula da Silva. Hummes allowed da Silva to use Church properties as bases from which to organize political agitation and to speak from Catholic pulpits while Hummes himself sat in the sanctuary in full vestments.
In 1980, da Silva played a prominent role in the founding of the Workers’ Party (PT). Several members of the PT’s early leadership team had been members of the then-defunct ALN; one of their number, José Dirceu, had been among those exchanged for Ambassador Elbrick. Dilma Rousseff joined the party a few years later, and Frei Betto became one of da Silva’s leading advisors.
In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II appointed Hummes to the College of Cardinals. Two years later, Lula da Silva became president of Brazil; José Dirceu served as his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff as Minister of Mining and Energy, and Frei Betto as Special Advisor.
Da Silva’s biographer Richard Bourns recalls that, two years later, “Lula was suspected of helping his friend Cláudio Cardinal Hummes behind the scenes in the race to become pope following the death of John Paul II,” and traveling to Rome for the late pope’s funeral. Such rumors might have been exaggerations; however, given their close relationship and Frei Betto’s endorsement of Cardinal Hummes as a papal candidate three years earlier, it seems likely that da Silva would have favored his election. Hummes’s star continued to rise as Pope Benedict XVI appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in 2006.
Today, Frei Betto is among those urging the Amazon synod to promote a heterodox agenda and to undermine da Silva’s political opponents. As he said in one speech: “We must mobilize. We must take advantage of this very important event—an event that deeply irritates the Bolsonaro government.” Jair Bolsonaro is the president of Brazil, widely compared to Donald Trump for his nationalist rhetoric and aversion to political correctness.
“The Synod offers us a window of opportunity to mobilize many people,” Betto continued, while cautioning that “we must not propose liberation theology. It scares many people. We need to talk about socio-environmental issues instead.” While I’m unaware of Cardinal Hummes making comparable public statements, history certainly seems to suggest that he’s at least broadly sympathetic to Frei Betto’s position.
In an appearance on EWTN’s The World Over this past July, Damian Thompson said that his primary concerns about Pope Francis were not theological but concerned the pope’s consistent promotion and defense of corrupt churchmen. The same point may be raised about Cardinal Hummes. If this is the sort of man Pope Francis has asked to serve as his deputy, what does this say about the Vatican’s intentions for the synod?
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