From Slaveholders to Revolution Mongers Brazil’s Clergy Has Never Been Too Catholic

Brazilian theologian Leonardo BoffA friend of mine who lives in Australia once asked me how it can be that Brazil, a Catholic country with supposedly ‘solid’ Christian foundations, can have so many problems of lawlessness, political corruption, and criminality.

This short piece is an attempt to explain him what sort of Catholicism and Christian foundations a country like Brazil really has.

Although Brazil is a country with a great number of religious denominations, about seventy-five percent of its population still profess to be Roman Catholics. This makes of Brazil, at least in theory, the largest Catholic nation in the world.

Unfortunately, the Catholic clergy is one of the Brazilian elites who have done its most to always undermine democracy and the rule of law. Although there are many clergymen who favour democracy and the rule of law, some do not favour it but rather an idea of ‘class struggle’ that is based on the Marxist principles of revolutionary socialism.

These priests believe that private property and free initiative are ways leading to ‘hell’ and that only a socialist revolution can lead to the advent in Brazil of ‘God’s Kingdom on Earth’.

In the old days of Brazil’s colonization, priests were the main political allies of the powerful sugar-planters. They were adherent themselves of the slavery system. Support towards slavery was not just theoretical, on the theological basis that black people did not have human soul, but the priests themselves were the largest landholders and slave-owners during colonial Brazil.

In the eighteenth century, the Order of Jesuits owned the largest and most profitable sugar plantations in Rio de Janeiro. Only their farm of Santa Cruz comprised impressing 100 square leagues and about 1,000 slaves. According to Dauril Alden.

“The properties which the Jesuits operated were managed by one or two padres who supervised the labour of Negro slaves, as in the case of sugar plantations… The Society of Jesus was probably the greatest institutional slaveholder in Brazil; certainly it possessed the largest number of slaves confined to a single plantation in all of colonial America”.(1)

The church in colonial days was a mere branch of the state. Priests were far more loyal to the king than to the pope. In fact, the pope was utterly unable to enforce the church’s discipline upon these churchmen. If he tried so, then the priests could appeal from the pope’s decision to the Crown.

The Crown had the power to censor any papal letters or documents. When the Marquis of Pombal was appointed as minister to King Joseph I (1750-1777), in the 1760s, he soon initiated the indoctrination of clerical students towards Regalism  (a doctrine in which the state has supremacy over the church) and Jansenism (a doctrine challenging the pope’s primacy on religious questions).

With the country’s independence from Portugal, on September 7, 1822, the state control over the church remained unchanged and at the same level as before. The Brazil Empire (1822-1889) was a period where the clergy normally considered any opinion of the pope on local affairs as “unduly interference on the part of the Holy See in the affairs of Brazilian state”.

Since the wages of priests were normally provided by the state, they resisted any attempt of the Catholic Church in Rome to exercise its authority upon the Brazilian branch of this church.

And since the state also financed the religious seminaries, the government was able to interfere in the curriculum of the seminaries. It actually did so, in 1865, by suppressing the fundamental chair of natural law as a measure to save money.

When Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s second monarch and the son of Dom Pedro I, had to wait for his declaration of majority by the Imperial Parliament, a priest called Antonio Feijó was temporarily placed in power as the country’s Regent. He stayed as such until his resignation in 1837.

Unfortunately, the moral behaviour of priests like Feijó was far from exemplary. In 1870, a document written by the first secretary of the bishop of Rio de Janeiro, suggests that most of these priests were “deeply moved by all sorts of passions and ambitions”.

As the bishop’s secretary puts it, they were unable to celebrate a mass and “ignorant of the most basic elements of dogma and morals”.(2)

An important moment in Brazil’s history was the famous Religious Questions (1872-75). The matter involved the bishop of Olinda, Dom Vital, who once decided to disobey the ‘placet’ (a law prohibiting papal documents to be enacted without governmental authorization) and publish a papal bull on the subject of Freemasonry.

He did so for much reasonably considering this law unfair and unreligious. To the applause of the many priests who were freemasons, he and the bishop of Pará, Dom Macedo Costa, were both judicially condemned to four-year jail with hard labour. It is true however that the decision was soon commutated to simple imprisonment, and that amnesty would be finally granted with the change of the cabinet in 1875.

With the army’s republican coup of November 15, 1889, the church was finally separated from the state. This fact meant that the Catholic Church not longer would be regarded as a mere branch of the Brazilian state.

However, it does not mean here that priests would become less interested in politics. In fact, the interest hasn’t decreased throughout this present republican era, although the ideology to normally guide their political actions has changed considerably.

In the 1950s, for example, a group of prominent Catholics decided to establish the famous Ação Católica Brasileira (Brazilian Catholic Action – ACB). This was a social movement with a clear Marxist orientation, which advocated for a socialist revolution and the abolition of the democratic Constitution of 1946.

The ACB’s leader, friar Thomas Cardonnel, talked about ‘established disorder’ as the most important doctrine of this organization. According to the doctrine of ‘established disorder’, friar Cardonnel once stated:

“We can never insist enough on the need to denounce natural harmony and class collaboration. God is not so dishonest, so false to produce a certain kind of social peace consisting in the acquiescence of all in an unnatural injustice. Violence is not only a fact of revolutions. It also denounces the maintenance of a false order”.(3)

In 1962, a large segment of the ACB decided to leave this organization and set up the Popular Action (Ação Popular – AP). The AP was even more radical than the ACB. It openly favoured violence as a valid means to achieve communism. In reality, the Popular Action was the most revolutionary organization in Brazil.

In a 1966 booklet entitled ‘Revolutionary Strategy’ (Estratégia Revolucionária), the AP proposes guerrilla warfare and a plan to establish pure socialism. In another of its booklets, which was published in 1966 under the title of ‘Basic Document’, the AP declares:

“The Popular Action opts basically for a policy of revolutionary preparation, consisting in a mobilization of the people, on the base of the development of their levels of consciousness and organization, securing the mobilization in terms of a struggle against the… domination of capitalism (international and national)”.(4)

The situation of radicalism hasn’t changed over the years. A prove of this fact is the vast quantity of writings on the subject of liberation theology.

Some of these writings are based on the premise that only a radical rupture with the current system can liberate the people from ‘economic oppression’. Implied here is also the argument that those who are ‘oppressed’ commit ‘sin’ by not rebelling against the legal system.

According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has now become the Pope Benedict XVI, liberation theologians normally uphold a distorted religious doctrine based on the “disastrous confusion between the poor of the Scriptures and the proletariat of Marx”. As a result of this tragic distortion of the Bible, says the current Pope:

“The desire to love everyone here and now, despite his class, and to go out to meet him with the non-violent means of dialogue and persuasion, is denounced [by such liberation theologians] as counterproductive and opposed to love.

“If one holds that a person should not be the object of hate, it is claimed nevertheless that, if he belongs to the objective class of the rich, he is primarily an enemy to be fought.

“Thus the universality of love of neighbour and brotherhood become an eschatological principle, which will only have meaning for the ‘new man’, who arises out of the victorious revolution”.(5)

For example, father Gutierrez, one of the founders of liberation theology in Latin America, says that the desire revealed by papal encyclicals of a harmonious relationship between the different social classes is nothing but a self-deception.

By refusing to accept any peaceful relationship between the social classes, Gutierrez suggests that every religious person would have “the duty to rouse the working class to an awareness of class struggle and the need to take part in it”.

For him, the mere refusal of the poor not to engage themselves in army struggle would be in itself a form of ‘sin’. On the other hand, to kill a human being is not necessarily a sin if it is committed by the oppressed in the struggle to remove inequalities.

Pope Benedict XVI has explained that the idea of ‘class struggle’, as it is normally advocated by liberation theologians, is a great ‘myth’ which serves only to “slow reforms and aggravate poverty and injustice”. He advises these radicals that it would be better for them to make a more careful reflection “on the bitter examples” of contemporary history.

For in the name of this sort of ‘liberation’, he reminds them, some of the most oppressive regimes that the world has ever seen went to brutally undermine even the most basic rights (and the lives) of millions of human beings. According to the Pope Benedict XVI,

“While claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. Those [liberation theologians] who, perhaps inadvertently, make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help.”

However, a Franciscan friar called Leonardo Boff has once suggested in his 1988 book Socialism as Theological Challenge (O Socialismo como Desafio Teológico) that the oppressive communist regimes of Eastern Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, were those that in his opinion offered “the best objective possibility of living more easily in the spirit of the Gospels and of observing the Commandments”.(6)

Leonardo Boff, who left the priesthood in 1992, is still a much prominent Catholic thinker in Brazil.

According to Boff, the capitalist system is the main responsible for all human miseries in the world. He boldly declares that “there is no cure for this system. It must be overcome”.(7)

In one of his books he makes the suggestion that capitalism might be compared with “the ‘666’ of the whore of Babylon”(8) And he also suggests in this book that the suppression of capitalism at any costs would represent the coming of “God’s Kingdom on Earth”, with “the advent of a new society… of a socialistic type”.

In contrast, Leornardo Boff praises communism as the best way to build “God’s Kingdom on Earth.” He says prophetically that the world will one day face a “final apocalyptic confrontation of the forces of good [communism] and evil [capitalism], and then the blessed millennium”.(9)

To justify the necessity of the church to support every violent revolution of a communistic type, Boff comments:

“The subordinated classes solicit the Church to aid them in their search for greater power and autonomy in the face of the domination they suffer. They ask the Church to support and justify the breakdown of the ruling classes and lend itself to revolutionary service.

“Yet, the faithful are present on both sides; the Church is inevitably affected by class conflicts and so may serve a revolutionary function or serve as a strengthening force for the ruling classes. These two possibilities are not free choices or options”.(10)

When Leonardo Boff was summed, in 1984, by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Catholic watchdog for matters of faith and doctrine), to explain his quite bizarre concept of ‘ecclesial division of labour’, the country’s two only cardinals, Aloisio Lorscheider and Paulo Evaristo Arns, accompanied him during the interrogation.

Brazilians correctly interpreted this fact as unprecedented demonstration of support for Boff’s radical ideas. A propos, Boff’s concept of ‘ecclesial division of labour’ sustains that the hierarchy of the church engages itself in a “gradual expropriation of the means of religious production from the Christian people”.

Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, who was the archbishop of São Paulo ad that time and one of the cardinals who followed Boff during his interrogation, has lobbied at the Vatican for the ‘positive work’ that is carried out by comunidades de base (local groups).

One of these local groups, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), has been reportedly using money which is donated by European churches to buy firearms for land invasions. In fact, the main office of the Landless Movement (MST), an anti-capitalist and highly revolutionary communistic organization, operates out of a place granted by cardinal Arns at the time he was a cardinal.

The idea of violence as a valid political weapon for revolutionary takeover has been put into practice across the nation “through the church’s activism in land conflicts, which continue to spark violence”.

After all, Dom Geraldo Majella, the powerful president of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) and the archbishop of Salvador, explains that ‘social movements’ like the MST must be praised for having created “a pressure cooker that is about to explode”.(11)

He explains here that the illegal and usually violent actions of the MST are helping to demonstrate the urgent need for a radical social transformation of the country. Of course, Majella has forgotten what the late Pope John Paul II said in front of him and other clergymen on the occasion of his visit to the country in November 2002:

“To attain social justice, much more is required than the simple application of ideological schemes derived from class struggle such as, for example, the invasion of lands – already condemned in my Pastoral Trip of 1991 – and of public or private buildings, or, to mention only this, the adoption of extreme technical measures that can have much graver (and socially unjust) consequences than the injustice they are meant to resolve”.(12)

On the other hand, the interest of radicals to be associated with (and infiltrated into) the church is very easy to explain. In Latin American countries such as Brazil, any revolutionary takeover requires a previous support of the Catholic clergy.

In thinking about this, Ernesto Che Guevara declared: “When the Christians have the courage to commit themselves completely to the Latin American revolution, the Latin American revolution will be invincible”.

The Lula da Silva administration has employed many radical priests in the state machinery. One of them is a Dominican friar called Betto, who was sentenced in the 1970s to four-year jail for his participation in urban guerrilla warfare.

He worked until recently as Lula’s special aide and the coordinator of programs on agrarian reform that are conceived in the mould of Cuba’s revolutionary councils.

Frei Betto was found declaring that Cuba’s communist experiment is “an expression of God’s Kingdom”. He also says that the totalitarian regime of Cuba is “a model to be imitated”, and that all the Cubans who have experienced imprisonment in gulag, or were killed by the state, or have left the country as refugees, are all of them, without any exception for him, either criminals or egocentric people.

This is what this sort of Catholic priest wrote in an article published by the country’s leading newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, on January 4, 2004:

“If Cuba is so advanced socially, why do some people attempt to escape from this country? Well, does not Brazil also have three million of its citizens living outside its borders? The only difference is that the Cuban economy is now socialised and, thereby, it does not accept individuals doing tourism outside the country; that is, it does not accept the evasion of national capital for personal pleasure. However, this fact does not stop a Cuban to travel overseas as long as he does it for scientific, artistic, commercial, or diplomatic reasons, and under the sponsorship of the state.

“In relation to those who deserted Cuba to seek for the ‘American way of life’, I haven’t heard of any trying to improve the conditions of the poor in the countries where they are now living. On the contrary, the jails in the United States are packed with escapers (evadidos) such as these.

“To live in Cuba requires altruism, as it does to live in a convent or monastery. The ‘our’ will leave a few space to the ‘mine’. And since selfishness is usually the highest human inclination, many cannot accept the idea of not getting rich and enjoy the mere superficialities (quimeras) that money promises…

“I include myself among those who disagree with the execution of political criminals. However, I do not hear any of those who protest against their killings also to mention that, while governor of Texas, Bush signed 153 death sentences against [normal] criminals… Some may even criticise the Cuban government for their killings, but nobody has the right to ask for more liberties in that country while the… American [economic] sanctions weight heavily on its neck”.

Catholic priests who think precisely like Frei Betto are currently working for the Brazilian government at the INCRA – National Institution for Colonization and Agrarian Reform.

One of them is the bishop emeritus of Goiás, Dom Thomas Balduíno, for whom the term agrarian reform is only “barely acceptable,” for what he says he really wants is “agrarian revolution.”

This bishop complained in a well-known interview that the late Pope John Paul II was “a Pole who struggled against communism. When we were beginning to open, he stepped in and forced us backwards”.

One basic problem with the undeniable fact that many members of the Brazilian clergy are radical Marxists, who therefore use Marxist categories in order to produce their social analysis, is that Marxism, at least in its purest or more orthodox form, does not favour either democracy or the rule of law.

As everybody who really knows the political writings of Karl Marx is able to confirm, what this German philosopher advocates is the implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, not democracy or the rule of law.

In relation to legal issues, Karl Marx was crystal-clear that he regarded law as a mere organization of the power imposed by one social class for oppressing another.

If so, it is quite fair to conclude, in this sense, that the ongoing Marxist discussion of ‘social transformation’ amongst the Brazilian clergy can certainly represent an obstacle for the realization of the rule of law, and, more specifically, for the consolidation of the country’s existing democratic legal system.


(1) Alden, Dauril; Economic Aspects of the Expulsion  of the Jesuits from Brazil: A Preliminary Report. From Conflict and Continuity in Brazilian Society. Henry H. Keith & S.F. Edwards. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969, p.29.

(2) ASSRJ, ACM, Bullário, II, p.476.

(3) See: Bruneau, Thomas C.; The Political Transformation of the Brazilian Catholic Church. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p.95.

(4) Ação Popular; Documento de Base. Goiânia: Centro de Cultura Popular, January 1963.

(5) Ratzinger, Joseph; Instruction on Certain Aspects of Theology of Liberation. Rome: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 6 August 1984.

(6) Boff, Leonardo; O Socialismo Como Desafio Teológico. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1987, p.682.

(7) Boff, Leornardo; Ecclesiogenesis. London: Collins, 2001, p.43.

(8) Boff, Leonardo; Salvation and Liberation. Melbourne: Dove, 1984, p.106.

(9) Idem, p.106.

(10) Boff, Leonardo; Church, Charism, and Power. New York: Crossroad, 1985, p.112.

(11) Folha de S. Paulo: O Grito dos Excluídos. 9 August 2003.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and PhD candidate for Monash University – Faculty of Law, in Australia. The topic of his research is the (un)rule of law and legal culture in Brazil.

He holds a LL.B and a LL.M (Hons.) from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, and is a former Law Professor at the NPPG (Research and Post-graduate Law Department) of Bennett Methodist University, and Estácio de Sá University, in Rio de Janeiro. His e-mail is


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