An Abiding Faith in Liberation Theology

Magno Marcieta says Brazilian seminarians are still inspired by the liberation theologians criticized in the 1980s by the Vatican cardinal who is now pope.
Magno Marcieta says Brazilian seminarians are still inspired by the liberation theologians criticized in the 1980s by the Vatican cardinal who is now pope. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 2, 2005

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Magno Marcieta, 28, hopes to become a priest next year, taking 11 years of quiet religious study into the poverty-stricken streets of the country with more Roman Catholics than any other.

Because he's a dedicated student, he knows his Saint Augustine and his Thomas Aquinas. Because he's from Brazil, he also knows his liberation theology.

The movement, which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. In the 1980s, it was blasted as a "fundamental threat" to the church by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has now become Pope Benedict XVI. As a result of such internal criticism, the movement gradually faded.

In Brazil, though, liberation theology is far from dead.

These days, instead of preaching class struggle and defying dictators, many veterans of the movement have adapted their rhetoric and role to the times. They work to promote environmental conservation or women's rights; they help the homeless and AIDS patients.

And while some young priests have been drawn to the fashionable charismatic Catholic movement, others say they still draw inspiration from the older advocates of liberation theology who were once prominent in Brazil.

"The students here really can't avoid liberation theology, even if they want to," said Marcieta, a student at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, who spends mornings steeped in religious volumes and journals. "Many of our professors are of the generation when liberation theology was dominant, and the reading lists include the books that shaped their lives."

When Ratzinger became pope, some observers predicted it would be the death knell for liberation theology. The movement has been slipping from prominence since the mid-1980s, when Ratzinger wrote the first Vatican document formally denouncing it and prohibited some of its leading proponents -- including Brazilian Leonardo Boff-- from speaking publicly.

But the views of young seminarians such as Marcieta make it clear that the movement has survived, although in a slightly different form. When he was 10, Marcieta attended the baptism of a family friend in Imperatriz, his home town in northern Brazil. The same day in the same town, the Rev. Josimo Tavares, a priest who worked on behalf of landless peasants in a region bloodied by conflicts over property rights, was shot dead.

Marcieta said he never forgot how the church suddenly filled with townspeople mourning the loss of someone they called a martyr. On that day -- May 10, 1986 -- he said he formed his concept of what a priest should be.

Tavares was one of hundreds of priests throughout Latin America who staked their futures on what they called a "preferential option for the poor." Many believed the church should challenge political systems in countries where poverty was widespread, taking the side of the poor and fighting against governments they considered oppressive.

During the 1960s and 1970s, military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The region's anticommunist rulers often clashed with radical priests, whose confrontational preoccupation with class struggle had Marxist overtones.

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