Hélder Câmara: From Power to Prophecy

'When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist,' said. Dom Hélder Câmara. Francis McDonagh describes the pilgrim's progress of a born conservative, whose contact with the poor took him from being archbishop to outcast by repressive authorities.

Hélder Câmara, archbishop of Olinda and Recife in the North-East of Brazil, from 1964 to 1985, is unknown to many today, and yet he was for about fifteen years one of the most influential clerics in Latin America, and probably in the world. A talented orator and organiser, he had a successful career as a civil servant on loan to the Brazilian ministry of education, and was then an adviser to two archbishops of Rio de Janeiro. Returning to church affairs, he was given responsibility for Catholic Action. While this was in its origin a conservative political movement, under heavy clerical tutelage, designed to give the Catholic Church a lay political presence in an increasingly secular world, under Câmara's leadership it schooled a generation of Brazilian Catholics in the social and economic realities of their world, and many became leaders of the resistance to the military dictatorship of 1964-85 or in post-dictatorship Brazil. At the commemoration in Recife of the fifth anniversary of Câmara's death, on 27 August 1999, some of the survivors of this group testified to the freedom he encouraged. According to Luiz Alberto Gomez de Souza, 'Dom Hélder was dominant, but did not quench people. He did not have disciples, he had companions whom he trusted.' This promotion of lay leadership in the Church was to be taken further when he had charge of his own diocese.

Câmara came into his own when visits to Rome brought him into contact with the Vatican secretary of state, Giovanni Batista Montini, later Pope Paul VI. The two became firm friends, and this relationship helped Câmara with his project to set up a national administration for the Church in Brazil. Under the name of the 'bishops' conference', this became the model for national Church administration throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Its significance was that it broke both with the 'monarchical papacy', ruling the universal Church through diocesan bishops, and with the 'monarchical bishop', unchallenged within his own diocese: now he was invited to share his pastoral ministry with his fellow bishops to face the wider challenges of a country or region. Câmara went on, with Chilean bishop Manuel Larraín, to set up a bishops' council for the whole of Latin America. It is no accident that John Paul II's Grand Inquisitor, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, has targeted bishop's conferences as unorthodox, for breaking the direct link between Pope and diocesan bishop.

Câmara was also active at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the assembly of Catholic bishops called by John XXIII to 'open the windows' of the Church to the modern, secular world. He was the organiser of the most effective progressive network at the Council, based at the Brazilian bishops' residence, the Domus Mariae, bringing together prelates from various countries. The lectures held at the Domus Mariae , given by theologians or Council fathers, became a reference for all who wanted to understand what was really going on at Vatican II. But closest to Câmara's heart was the group known as the 'Church of the poor', concerned about the gulf between the Church and the poor, which tried to get the issue of world poverty on the Council agenda. In this they were only partly successful, but Câmara was a vehement defender of what became Council Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, when conservatives argued that the Church had no authority to pronounce on social issues, conveniently forgetting past denunciations of evils such as religious liberty, liberalism and socialism.

Once appointed archbishop, Câmara put these ideas into practice in Olinda and Recife. He opened up the governance of his diocese through a series of consultative bodies, culminating in a pastoral assembly: the executive was a council consisting of the archbishop and his auxiliary, plus the episcopal vicars for various areas of ministry, who might be women or men, priests, religious or laity. The archdiocese had a 'political arm' , a Justice and Peace Commission, responsible for tracking down the disappeared and political prisoners, but also supporting communities threatened with eviction by landowners or speculators.

The core of the system was the network of base communities, 'the poor evangelising the poor', groups meeting for education and action even in the poorest areas. After pressure from the archdiocese's students for the priesthood, the seminary was replaced by 15 communities, each with a director, living in parishes. For study, the Recife Theological Institute (ITER) was founded in 1968. How different this was to be from a conventional theological college, Dom Hélder made clear in his inaugural lecture: 'Here will come, to teach and to learn, bishops of the holy Church, priests and candidates for the priesthood, religious women,... lay people, non-Christians, God-fearing and thirsty for the truth, agnostics and atheists, very often Christians in practice.'

But Câmara's opening up of the Church to the world of the poor was dangerous in the Brazil of the 1960s. He was appointed as archbishop of the diocese of Olinda and Recife on the day in 1964 that a military coup overthrew the elected Brazilian government and introduced twenty-one years of authoritarian rule, torture and assassination. One of his closest colleagues was savagely murdered, and Câmara became a non-person, with the Brazilian media banned from mentioning him.

This virtual exile within his own country brought a new and unexpected turn to his life's work. Silenced in Brazil, he began to travel the world, not only to publicise the crimes of the dictatorship, but also to articulate his developing conviction that the root cause of violence was injustice. Though phrased in the language of the 1960s, the era of 'development' and the Alliance for Progress, his warnings about the impoverishment produced by modern capitalism for the majority of the world's population rich and poor prefigure today's globalisation debate:

'I became very involved in the idea of "development". The word conveyed a hope for solidarity and for a real collaboration between rich and poor countries. But it very soon became evident that the developed countries' resolution to set aside one per cent of their gross national product for aid to underdeveloped countries was not going to solve the problem. It's become absolutely clear to me that there is no hope of our people being liberated through capitalism. Of course there are different kinds of capitalism, but in every capitalist system the concern with profit takes precedence over concern for people. Even when they say: "All you have to do is wait! First we must develop the economy, then we'll tackle social reform!", it's still profit that comes first. And it's clear that the most advanced element of capitalism, the multinational company, makes the privileged classes richer and the poor poorer.' [i]

His solution, too, is uncannily like today's anti-globalisation movement. He believes in 'liberating moral pressure', but he ceased to believe that this could come 'from institutions such as the churches, the universities, trade unions, the press'. 'Then I discovered minorities in every institution there are minorities who, beneath a vast diversity of denominations, leaders and objectives, share a common hunger and thirst for justice: minorities for whom justice is the path of peace. I call them "Abrahamic minorities" in honour of Abraham, the father of all those who over the centuries have continued to hope against hope. But I should like to find a more universal name for them: Jews and Moslems and Christians know Abraham, but Abraham means nothing in the East.' [ii] The last comment illustrates Câmara's increasing sense of the universality of this vocation, which seems to have developed as his international horizons widened. With atheism he had long since ceased to have a problem, though he interpreted it in terms of the then fashionable theory of 'anonymous Christians': 'I disagree with those who say that atheistic humanism is doubly atheistic, because it denies God and puts man in God's place. It seems to me that, on the contrary, the true atheistic humanist fulfils at least half of the Law: he loves his neighbour. And if you love mankind sincerely, then without knowing it and even without wishing it, you also love God.' [iii]

The process by which Câmara came to reject the political movement sympathetic to the ideas of Salazar in favour of a radical, communitarian democracy is another key theme of his life-story. The process was more than a shift from political right to political left. The constant was a conviction that Christianity had a mission to the world, was, in the broadest sense, political. The change seems to have taken place along two parameters. The first was a closer contact with the poor, and a growing sense of both their plight and their potential. The second appears to have been a growing scepticism of institutions, including the Church. Certainly his recently published letters from the Second Vatican Council show his frustration at the difficulty of transforming the ecclesiastical system from an instrument of power to a force for liberation.

Câmara's political activism was inseparable from his Catholic belief, and that belief was firmly orthodox, if not conservative, centred on devotion to the mass, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary and his guardian angel, who seems to have been a sort of alter ego, whom Câmara called José, significantly, the nickname his mother had given him. But he was able to use this belief as the basis for radical conclusions. His inaugural sermon as archbishop, delivered on 12 April 1964, twelve days after the military coup, is a fine example:

'Although to some people it may seem strange, I declare that in the North-East Christ is called Zé, Antônio or Severino. Ecce homo! Behold the man! Behold the Christ. He is the man who needs justice, has a right to justice, deserves justice.

'Severino, son of Severino, nephew of Severino, has a bleak life; it is a death in life. He vegetates more than he lives a human life. He does not vegetate like a leafy tree, but like the cactus, his brother. Until today he has not rebelled. He has learned from his illiterate parents and at the church of his lordly landowner boss to be patient, like the Son of God, who has endured so much injustice that he died on the cross to save us.

'And if, tomorrow, the labourer shows ingratitude, pretends to be a human being, taking an interest in innovations, frequenting radio schools, participating in trade unionism, talking about rights, then the boss is convinced there is cause for alarm: the wind of subversion is blowing - even, who knows? of communism. And then, without the least hesitation or remorse, he sacks the worker, drives him off his lands, and if needs be, demolishes the shanty in which the worker lived with his family.' [iv]

This quotation shows a number of features of Câmara's thought, a traditional, if radical, theology of the incarnation, a lyricism focused on the natural world, and a passionate hatred of injustice. He was not a theologian, and frequently joked about his traditional theology, while at the same time using it as the premise for revolutionary innovations in ecclesiastical structure. Asked if he was not afraid to live alone, he acts out a conversation he has had many times: ' "But I do not live by myself." "So there is always someone else here?" " But certainly. There are three persons - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." I enjoy all the current discussions of theologians very much, but I must admit I hold on to my own conception of the Blessed Trinity.' [v]

A constant practice of Câmara's was a daily vigil, from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m., when he would meditate, pray and write, often poetic meditations. These were clearly centring, grounding, times that gave him the energy for the incessant activity and interaction with others that took up the rest of his day. From his frequent references to them, they seem to have consisted often of familiar conversations with God, about current concerns, alternating with speculations about why the world is as it is, or flights of lyricism about the natural world. It seems that these meditations, as much as anything, were the source of the increasing openness of his religious outlook.

With the move to restore a more authoritarian model of Church from 1979 with the election as Pope John Paul II of Karol Woytila, Câmara once again became a non-person. His resignation speedily accepted in 1985, a successor was appointed to undo his work. The former premises of the Justice and Peace Commission were sold off to becoming a shopping mall. Câmara, bound by his loyalty to the papacy, kept silent, though his friends describe him weeping in private. Today, while the Catholic Church in Recife moulders in irrelevance, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the most successful of Brazilian neo-Pentecostal multinationals, is erecting a lavish new cathedral. But there are signs that Hélder Câmara may be vindicated. His vision of a Church freed from clericalism and dedicated to establishing justice and peace shines more brightly by contrast with the repressive thrashings of a declining pontificate.

Francis McDonagh

Francis McDonagh works on Latin America for the Catholic development agency, CAFOD. He writes in Latin America for The Tablet, and is preparing a collection of Hélder Câmara's writings to be published by Orbis Books, New York.