Religion & Liberty Online

How Christian Marxism took root in Brazil

1968 was a year of intense change for the world. Anyone who lived it may have thought the world was being engulfed by the waters of revolution.  Across the world, students took to the streets promising to destroy the political system.

Paris was the symbol of that year. Twenty-two years after the liberation of France at the end of World War II, the streets of the French capital looked like a wartime scenario. What had begun as a student protest about dormitory accommodation issues quickly became a generalized movement for social strife. Barricades appeared in the streets and public order collapsed. The sons and daughters of the French bourgeoisie sought to destroy the bourgeois order. What would replace it? No one knew or seemed to care. They just knew it would be something much better.

1968 was also the year in which the modern history of the Catholic Church in Latin America began.

The Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Medellin, Colombia, marked the birth of liberationist Catholicism as an official movement. As a result of that event, many Catholic bishops start using Marxist analysis and even employing Marxist rhetoric as they agitated for social, economic and political revolution.

Among the participants at that conference was the still unknown Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez. Two years later, he sought to integrate Marxism with the Catholic faith in his book, “A Theology of Liberation.” Thereafter known as the father of liberation theology, Gutierrez’s ideas would be adopted by the then Franciscan friar and priest Leonardo Boff from Brazil and developed by him and others into a powerful political movement.

To tell the history of the liberation theology in Brazil is to tell the story of Leonardo Boff. More than Gutierrez, he was very much the public face of liberation theory and Catholic dialogue with Marxism. In the 1970s, Boff, his brother Clodovis Boff and Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo, better known as Frei Betto, turned Brazilian Catholicism a kind of world epicenter for liberation theology.

Leonardo Boff was a young priest recently returned from his studies in theology in Germany when he began the process of initiating a revolution that would change the religious and political history of Brazil. The fact that Boff studied theology in Germany matters. German universities were the home of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism. These ideas spread rapidly throughout German faculties of theology. Thus, as the Catholic historian Ralph M. Wiltgen writes, Germany became the motherland of a religious hermeneutic alien to the tradition and teaching of the Church. It was in this intellectual environment heavily marked by the neo-Marxism that Boff formed his thinking.

This partly explains the criticism made in 1984 by that then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger concerning the errors of Liberation Theology. For Ratzinger, this theology involved an entire reinterpretation of Catholic doctrine. What the liberation theologians created was a new hermeneutic, a hermeneutic based on historical materialism, or as Boff himself stated in an interview with the Jornal do Brasil in 1980: “What we propose is not theology within Marxism, but Marxism (historical materialism) within Theology. ”

This appeal to Marxist historical materialism resulted in what has been called the immanentization of the eschatological spirit: the idea that heaven can be realized on earth. Boff and his companions thus ended up creating a neo-Marxist political movement with a theological veneer.

The Brazil of the 1970s was a very favorable environment for the development of this Christian Marxism. The new generation of clergy who took over the leadership of the Church in Brazil such as the Archbishop of Sao Paulo Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns as well as the brothers Dom Ivo and Dom Aloísio Lorscheider, both leaders of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, was theologically progressive, even radical. The left-wing Brazilian historian Elio Gaspari points out that many of these individuals had contacts with both the communist insurgents and Marxist intellectuals who came to dominate the Brazilian cultural scene.

Shortly after the conclave that elected him in 1978, Pope John Paul I (whose papacy only lasted thirty-three days) had a meeting with twenty Latin American cardinals and observed that most of them ostensibly supported liberation theology. They informed him, on the occasion, that there were already more than 100,000 of what were called “basic ecclesial communities”. Many of these were actively involved in disseminating Marxist revolutionary propaganda throughout Latin America. Until then, John Paul I knew Liberation Theology only as theoretical speculation. He had not imagined that this doctrine could have become a political force of such dimensions.

When Cardinal Ratzinger began to dismantle the theological arguments of liberation theology in the 1980s, many of the basic ecclesial communities had already helped to create and been absorbed by a mass political party, the Workers’ Party. Many of its members don’t claim to be theologically sophisticated or even Christians but they invariably insist that Jesus Christ was socialist.

Many of the basic ecclesial communities associated themselves with Communist and left-populist movements in Latin America. Some supported the terrorist Farc movement in Colombia. Others played a fundamental role in the rising of the late Colonel Hugo Chavez to power in Venezuela. According to Friar Betto, he himself participated in a meeting in Havana between Lula da Silva and Fidel Castro in 1991 that resulted in the creation of the Sao Paulo Forum – an organization which brings together all left-wing organizations in Latin America with the primary objective of assuming political. A good example of this was the election of the Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo and liberationist sympathizer to the presidency of Paraguay.

By 1990, many liberation theologians were no longer even pretending to be that serious about Catholicism. Friar Betto, for example, occupied positions in the Lula da Silva government from 2003 to 2004. As a policymaker, he turned out to be a failure. Leonardo Boff abandoned the priesthood and the Franciscan order in 1992. His brother, Clodovis Boff, renounced liberation theology a few years later and became a critic of it. Leonardo Boff continues to present himself as a kind of conscience of the Brazilian Catholic Church, but it is not clear that he is taken very seriously by many Catholics in Brazil today. Nowadays, his audience is mostly the left-wing academics and the followers of the Workers’ Party. In more recent years, Leonardo Boff seems to have embraced a type of eco-theology and announced that his mission is to save mother Earth.

Much of the power of liberation theology in the Catholic Church in Brazil has faded. The strong association between liberationists and the Workers’ Party and the rise of a conservative political right vis-à-vis the growing unpopularity of the left led to a backlash against liberation theology within the Catholic Church itself. The loss of the intellectual prestige of liberationism also contributed to both the decline of this doctrine and the rise of theological conceptions more attuned to Catholic orthodoxy. Conservative Catholicism has been moving slowly toward the mainstream of Brazilian religious life, which will inevitably result in significant changes in the Brazilian Catholic Church.

Featured photo: Escritor Leonardo Boff concede entrevista. Leonardo Boff, pseudônimo de Genézio Darci Boff, é um teólogo brasileiro, escritor e professor universitário, expoente da Teologia da Libertação no Brasil. Foto: Jane de Araújo/Agência Senado. 2015. Wiki Commons.

Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.