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.