The Passing of Dom Paulo, Cardinal Arns, a Liberation Theology Titan

The Passing of Dom Paulo, Cardinal Arns, a Liberation Theology Titan

The Passing of Dom Paulo, Cardinal Arns, a Liberation Theology Titan

He stood up courageously against Brazil’s dictatorship and supported the “preferential option for the poor.”


The announcement late last year of the death, at age 95, of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, Brazil—or Dom Paulo, as he was almost universally known to his parishioners—has taken me back to memories of a conversation I once had with him, one that I’ve never publicly related before, though there’s really no reason to keep from doing so any longer (since most of the principal people involved have now died).

Thirty years ago, I was in São Paulo reporting for The New Yorker on the settling of accounts with the torturers of the prior regime in the newly democratizing Brazil, leading up to my 1990 book A Miracle, A Universe. The “Miracle” of the title alluded both to the supposed Brazilian Economic Miracle initially spawned by the 1964 US-backed military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government, and to what some considered the true miracle of that era: the way a motley band of once imprisoned activists subsequently conspired, at great personal risk, by way of a five-year-long top-secret operation, to smuggle out and eventually publish the military regime’s own files regarding the extensive torture system upon which that economic growth spurt had largely been based. The “Universe,” in turn, referred both to the universe of documents (“universe” being the technical archival term) that the conspirators managed to sneak out, one file box at a time, from the basement archives of the country’s Supreme Military Court, and to the entire universe of suffering contained in every single individual file in that resultantly cloned archive. (A tale worthy of Borges, as scripted by Costa-Gavras.)

Cardinal Arns had been the guardian angel behind that entire effort. Born of German émigré parents in the southern Brazilian coastal province of Santa Catarina, Paulo was educated by Franciscans and went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to Brazil, initially to teach at the Catholic university in Petrópolis, north of Rio, and to minister to the denizens of the outlying favela slums there. In 1966, he was promoted to the position of auxiliary bishop in São Paulo, just in time to take an exceptionally active role, two years later, in the epochal Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellín, Colombia, one of the high-water moments of the liberation theology movement on the continent.

In part a follow-on response to the emancipating spirit of Vatican II, and in part a reflection of the roiling wider politics of the 1960s, the theorists and practitioners of liberation theology across Latin America argued for a rejection of the Church’s traditional embrace of wealthy elites and its replacement, instead, by a “preferential option for the poor.” The movement typically focused its work on ground-level initiatives in poor communities by way of sessions given over to literacy training and “consciousness raising” (a term that first emerged in Brazil in this very context) and by way as well of so-called “base communities,” small groupings of the faithful given over to mutual support and various sorts of social activism.

A few years after Medellín, Pope Paul VI named Arns archbishop of all São Paulo. As a first gesture in that spirit, upon his investiture, Arns sold the archbishop’s gaudily ornate palatial residence (donating the substantial proceeds to the city’s poorhouses, favela clinics, schools, and base communities) and took up residence in a couple of rooms behind a monastery, where he would entertain guests dressed in casual wear (sweaters, slacks, and slippers) in lieu of the traditional cardinal’s livery. He subsequently made several crucial interventions in the country’s dirty war, personally marching into the city’s military barracks (protected by nothing more than his bishop’s ring) to retrieve the body of a murdered labor leader in one instance, and convening a legendary ecumenical service to honor a savagely murdered journalist in another. He also personally sheltered such celebrated liberation theologians as Leonardo Boff, a former student from back in his Petrópolis days. Although such gestures caused outrage among the military and the city’s gilded elites, they apparently met with Pope Paul VI’s approval, for Arns was soon elevated to the position of cardinal over this archdiocese, the largest in the world, and as such one of the leading figures in the wider community of Latin American ecclesiasts.

Pope Paul VI died in August 1978 and was replaced by yet another Italian, Venice’s Albino Luciani, who served as John Paul I for a mere 34 days before himself dying under still quite mysterious circumstances. When the cardinals reconvened in Rome for the second conclave that year, the Austrians and Germans among them mounted a concerted campaign to prevent the selection of another Italian, approaching the German-speaking Cardinal of São Paulo with an interesting idea: What of that charismatic workers’ priest, Karol Wojtyla, from Krakow, Poland, famous in particular for championing the rights of the city’s steelworkers? Cardinal Arns warmed to the idea, bringing along with himself the entire Latin American contingent as well, thereby assuring the selection of the first non-Italian pope in centuries.

Pope John Paul II was indeed charismatic and thoroughly devoted to workers’ rights when it came to the Communist regime back in Poland. But when it came to the wider world, his positions were decidedly more circumspect: He was doctrinally conservative, fiercely anti-Communist, and thoroughly convinced that liberation theology was infested with Marxist contagions. Despite their evident ideological divergences, the new pope and the cardinal from São Paulo seemed to get on well personally, John Paul admiring Arns’s devotion to the poor. In February 1980 (just a few months before the upsurge of Solidarity in Poland, with Brazil still very much in the craw of military rule), Arns sheltered the founding meeting of the Workers’ Party (PT), led by the vivid young steelworker Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (universally known as “Lula” for short); and a few months later, he even got the visiting pope to join him at a São Paulo football stadium to salute striking steelworkers (to exultantly swelling chants of “Libertade! Libertade!”).

Meanwhile, however, and ever more so across the decade that followed, John Paul encouraged his chief lieutenant (and eventual successor), Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinal-prefect of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to crack down hard on proponents of liberation theology all across Latin America, notably including Arns. At the same time, John Paul himself systematically stocked the Curia, the Vatican’s high bureaucracy, with arch-conservative Latin American Church figures, who began a decades-long rout of the continent’s liberation theologists, systematically undercutting the cardinal of São Paulo in particular in ways both petty and grand. By 1989, in one of its most radical attacks, the Vatican divided Arns’s São Paulo archbishopric into five sections, installing conservative archbishops over the four outlying and largely poorer regions, and relegating Arns to administering the central district, largely home to the rich elites who despised him.

Even before John Paul’s appointment, Cardinal Arns had been approached by the head of the Presbyterian Church-USA in Brazil, Jaime Wright, whose own brother had been disappeared (and later found to have been murdered) by the Brazilian military police. The two formed a deep friendship, and the Protestant cleric was presently installed as the director of the cardinal’s own human rights office—an unprecedentedly ecumenical arrangement. By 1980, the two of them came to spearhead that secret conspiracy aimed at mining the military regime’s secret torture archives. The project culminated in 1985—only weeks after the military permitted the installation of the country’s first “freely” elected (albeit carefully vetted) civilian president since the 1964 coup—with the sudden release of Brasil Nunca Mais, a report on torture based entirely on the prior regime’s own records. The military leadership, horrified both by the report’s contents and the brazenness of the plot that had produced them, momentarily considered the re-imposition of martial law but thought better of it, figuring the damning report might simply melt away if they just ignored it. Instead, the book quickly became one of the best-selling volumes of nonfiction in the history of Brazil and went a long way toward undermining whatever prestige the increasingly discredited Brazilian military was still able to muster. (“After that,” as one of my informants told me, “they were effectively pithed of their strut.”)

When I first told this story, both in my New Yorker reports and in the Miracle/Universe book that followed, I’d had to leave a lot out, particularly regarding Arns’s role in the scheme. For example, the cardinal was constantly finding safehouses for the project’s workers, as each new one showed signs of having been compromised—a nunnery, an ecclesiastical warehouse, and the like. The last of these was actually an insane asylum—run by a onetime debutante turned Freudian Marxist turned mother superior—where the obsessive behavior of the project’s fiendishly exacting work team blended in uncannily with that of many of the other mad denizens of the place: a perfect cover.

In 1988, some months after my New Yorker pieces ran, I was invited to introduce Cardinal Arns when he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Dubuque, a progressive Presbyterian college in Iowa. He flew up from São Paulo, and I flew over from New York. We converged in Chicago and then boarded a small propeller plane for the hour-long hop over to Dubuque. On the flight we sat facing one another, and presently our conversation turned to the situation at the Vatican, now 11 years into John Paul II’s ascendency. Cardinal Arns shook his head, marveling at all the grim developments in that regard. Dom Paulo knew that I had been sporadically covering developments in Poland for The New Yorker over those same years, and he asked me my opinion regarding the genesis of the pope’s unflagging conservatism and doctrinaire authoritarianism. I did my best to describe what I knew, the roots of his fierce anti-Communism in his experiences in Poland back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and so forth. As the plane banked in preparation for its final approach to the little airfield down below, Cardinal Arns, a veritable Prince of the Church, shook his head, sighing, and muttered, “This Polish Pope, he is our cross to bear.”

                                                      *  *  *

In April 1998, John Paul accepted Arns’s mandatory retirement at age 77, whereupon Arns repaired to an old people’s home in northern São Paulo, where he served as resident chaplain—and continued to speak out on occasion (in favor of married clergy, one of the highest-ranking Church officials ever to do so; in favor of condoms as a method of AIDS prevention, Church strictures notwithstanding; regarding the eventual PT government of his old protégé Lula, and his growing disappointments regarding same).

In April 2005, following the death of John Paul and in the caesura before the election of his successor, Arns gave a wide-ranging interview to the Brazilian journalist Laura Greenhalgh, who began by asking him about his relationship with the late pope. “On certain occasions I left Brazil thinking that the pope must not be too pleased with me,” Arns replied. “But every time I arrived, John Paul had three questions for me: Are you taking care of the poor? Are you taking care of the workers? Are you taking care of the youth?… he never gave any sign that he disapproved of what I was doing in São Paulo.”

Clearly, Arns’s sense of John Paul had mellowed. In fact, Arns related how John Paul even appointed him to the position of recording secretary for a series of important bishops’ synods during the 1980s, though, as Arns went on to note, somehow all of his reports ended up being redrafted by the pope’s immediate subordinates and utterly emptied of their substance (which of course begged the question as to who had appointed all of those immediate subordinates).

Following up, Greenhalgh asked about John Paul’s theological sensitivity to the situation of the poor, to which Arns replied, delicately, “What was dear to his heart is the unity of the Church in the face of evil. He always saw evil as penetrating the world through poverty, through youth. We in Latin America saw the poor as evangelizers, but he did not see things in exactly the same way.” Asked finally about who he envisioned as John Paul’s best possible successor (over 80 now, he himself was not going to be allowed to participate in the conclave), Arns replied, “I trust the Church and have hope for humanity,” adding, “Let’s leave that to the Holy Spirit!”

In the event, of course, the Holy Spirit and the conclave quickly settled on Arns’s old nemesis, Cardinal Ratzinger, who went on to serve as Pope Benedict XVI until resigning in 2013, whereupon he was replaced by a Latin American of all things, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, who took the name Francis.

Typical of the Argentine Church out of which he emerged, the new pope had been far less vigorous in denouncing the depredations of the military regime in his own country, a failure guilt over which some feel accounts for his subsequent transformation. For Francis has proven far more tolerant and less authoritarian than the prior two popes, while conspicuously displaying a distinct preferential option, as it were, for the poor.

When Arns died this past December, Pope Francis sent a message to his mourners, which read, in part:


I receive with great sadness the news of the death of our venerated brother, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns. I express…my condolences for the passing of this intrepid pastor who in his ecclesial ministry revealed himself to be an authentic witness of the Gospel amid his people, showing to all the path of truth in charity and in service to the community, in constant attention to the most disadvantaged. I thank the Lord for having given the Church such a generous pastor, and raise fervent prayers that God may grant eternal joy to this good and faithful servant of His.


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