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An Abiding Faith in Liberation Theology
Since Vatican's Condemnation, Movement Veterans in Brazil Have Adapted to Times

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.

In the Vatican, liberation theology also fell out of favor. Ratzinger, considered a liberal reformer in his younger years, became point man for Pope John Paul II on the issue after he was named chairman of the church's doctrinal watchdog agency in 1981. He called outspoken priests to Rome and censured them on grounds that they were abandoning the church's spiritual role for inappropriate socioeconomic activism.

Many bishops seen as left-wing were replaced with more conservative leaders, and outspoken advocates such as Boff were silenced. Boff, a Franciscan friar and an editor at Vozes, the major Catholic magazine and publishing house in Brazil, was ordered to undergo nearly a year of penitent silence and repeatedly banned from teaching or publishing his work.

As liberation theology fell out of favor, the charismatic Catholic movement, which infuses evangelical vigor into church services through energetic songs and advocates individual fulfillment, began to gain popularity. Today charismatic Masses attract thousands of high-spirited worshipers in Brazilian cities.

"I guess I'm a dinosaur . . . someone from the last century," said Fernando Altmeyer, an unrepentant liberation theologian who left the priesthood to marry but still works as the Catholic University ombudsman here. "Today in Brazil, the emphasis is on the charismatic priests. But maybe it's like 'Jurassic Park,' " he mused. "Maybe pterodactyls can come back again."

According to some Catholic observers, though, liberation theology has evolved to avoid going extinct.

In the post-Cold War world, proponents have shifted their focus and vocabulary away from class struggle. Boff, who left the priesthood in 1992, now devotes much of his writing and speaking about ecological concerns. Other liberation theologians champion Catholic women's rights and racial justice.

The Rev. Julio Lancelotti, 58, who works in a gritty industrial neighborhood in Sao Paulo, said he was keeping alive the "preferential option for the poor" that was the core of liberation theology by helping homeless people and running a shelter for children born with the AIDS virus.

"It is important to work with them, to let them know . . . they are also children of God," he said. "We are thinking of the church from their point of view. That principle is still alive."

In the rural provinces of the Amazon, liberation theology is also being applied through the church's activism in land conflicts, which continue to spark violence. An American nun, Dorothy Stang, was murdered earlier this year in the northern state of Para, where she fought property holders to secure land for poor peasants.

Bishop Pedro Casadaliga, 77, from the eastern state of Mato Grasso, said he had long followed the tenets of liberation theology. In the 1980s, he recounted in a telephone interview, he was called to Rome to meet with church officials who were alarmed by his support of Nicaraguan revolutionaries and his public statements that powerful countries had "sucked the blood" from Latin America.

Casadaliga survived the scolding and continued his church work until this year, when he said he was granted a request for retirement. Then he added a bitter comment about Benedict, his theological nemesis.

"I think the pope should ask for retirement as well," Casadaliga said. Still, he tempered his criticism with hope, saying it was too early to tell how the pope might respond to the new strain of liberation theology. He also noted that Benedict's first speeches have struck harmonious chords aimed at unifying the church -- even among members like himself who fell out of favor decades ago and remain at odds with the official line.

"When [Benedict] was young, he had very progressive ideas," Casadaliga said. "Maybe he will open his mind again."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company