Editorial: Brazil—Catholicism in Crisis

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, late in May, scheduled to present a lecture on “Creation Theology in Latin America” in the ninth-floor auditorium of the city’s major left-wing paper, La Folha do Sao Paulo, I was subjected to my first international demonstration.

Earlier, some left-wing editors had opposed giving a democratic capitalist such as myself any hearing at all. Since democracy is only now reappearing in Brazil after 21 years of deeply resented military rule, the publisher wanted to signify a new era of open debate; and he prevailed.

More than an hour before the scheduled time, however, an organized group of religious-based and university leftists took over the hall and began singing the Sandinista anthem, declaiming revolutionary poetry, and otherwise building up passion. None of the newspaper’s 200 invited guests could get in. Even the aisles were filled.

After much hesitation, the publisher of La Folha finally decided to give me the word to go up front—alone. I walked slowly down the crowded aisle, offering to shake hands. No one accepted. As I reached the microphone, on signal, all stood and sang the Sandinista marching song, stomping their feet in rhythm, and waving their well-prepared signs and banners.

“Nicaragua libre” predominated, but so did (in English) “Novak go home,” “How many Vietnams will it take?” and, most touchingly (in Portuguese) “Liberation Theology is Ours.” I saw at least two nuns in the crowd.

After three or four minutes of singing and yelling, they let me read my rather academic text. Later, after allowing me to answer calmly two (as the speaker seemed to think) unanswerable questions, someone signaled for the crowd to leave. As they did so, I loved best the nun in the back of the room, with clenched fist leading a chant of “Sohn-ofa-beetch! Sohn-ofa-beetch!” and “Yanqui-sheet! Yanqui-sheet!”

A few came forward to apologize and to express shame. One of the nuns, who had twice been shouted down for urging the crowd to let me speak, came forward to plead the Sandinista case with civility.

After an intense week of lecturing; debating, giving interviews, and sharing lunches and dinners with various followers of liberation theology, I left Brazil with two conclusions.

First, the theme of “liberation theology is ours” has for many a deeply spiritual ring. It means finding a new way to leave behind a merely privatized religion, in order to organize the poor in what we in the U.S. have long known as “social action.” The Brazilians do so in their own Latin idiom and style. Their sincerity is impressive.

Second, as the hostile demonstration dramatized, the passion of some is intensely political. Ignorance of Anglo-American political and economic thought seems almost bottomless. The natural form of thought for some is “Marxist analysis.” That is their vulgate, their daily idiom. For some, democracy is a sham. (Brazilians have never known a day of true self-government, one distinguished editor explained.) And capitalism is in some minds pure evil, with no redeeming qualities whatever.

About their own dream for the future, some say only that they want a “fraternal society,” as in the gospels. If they have given any thought at all to the political, economic, and cultural institutions through which they will organize a complex society, none would articulate for me even a sentence.

Most do not wish to be thought of as choosing a Soviet model (here a few became indirect and coy). Admiration for Cuba and for the Sandinistas is not quite total, but it is deep and broad.

Hatred for Pope John Paul II is in at least a few quarters intense. “He is destroying the church,” one liberation theologian told me privately; “he is responsible for 500,000 infants dying in Brazil each year, because of his social teaching.” He said the silencing of the Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff represents an “ideological offensive” against the entire Brazilian church.

The church of liberation theology, however, is still a minority even within the Brazilian church. I asked my theological friend whether he could foresee a repetition of the Protestant Reformation in Brazil—a huge split from Rome, on the part of biblically-centered, highly spiritualized, dissenting base communities, no longer willing to follow the Pope. He was hoping, he said, for the next pope. He had not thought about what will happen if a new pope continues, like Pope John Paul II, to raise serious questions about liberation theology.

Catholicism is in even deeper crisis in Brazil than I had imagined. Ironically, the most passionate split concerns, not theology and faith, but political economy. Some of those I met feel deep and intense hatred, not for the American people, but for the American “system.” Such persons do not like being questioned about their positive future plans. They seem most comfortable blaming the Yanquis.

One must remember, however, that these are the first months of free discussion in Brazil, after 21 long years of military rule. There. is still much resentment, and some uncertainty about how freedom ought to be used. I am extremely grateful for having been given so many stimulating audiences and conversations in this new atmosphere. Almost continental in size, Brazil plays a critical role in the future of liberty.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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