Rorate Caeli

Helder Câmara: a lifetime of working against the Church from the inside. - And they want to beatify him?...

Who was Dom Helder Câmara?

Corrispondenza Romana
April 7, 2015

There has been a lot of talk recently about Dom Helder Camara, whose process for beatification has been recently approved by the Vatican.  For the average Italian, the figure of Monsignor Helder Pessoa Camara (1909 – 1999) , auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janiero and subsequently Metropolitan Archbishop of Olinda and Recife is practically unknown.

Who was Dom Helder?

Propaganda bordering on the  ridiculous

The only information about Archbishop Camara which has filtered into our news agencies come from such unbalanced propagandistic sources  that I have no fear in describing them as bordering  on the ridiculous.

For example, I remember very well the reaction of the press at the time of Abp. Helder’s death in 1999. The Italian mass-media vied with each other in eulogies, conferring high-flying titles on him such as “Prophet of the poor”, Saint of the favelas” “voice of the Third World” “St. Helder of America” and so on.  It was a sort of canonization by the mass-media. (1)

This same mass-media propaganda machine seems to have been reactivated with the opening of the beatification process, authorized  by the Vatican last February 25th.   Some information  about it would not do any harm at all.

Pro-Nazi Militant 

Perhaps there are few who know  this, but Helder Camara began his public life as a militant in the pro-Nazi right. He was in fact, a party official of the Acao Integralista Brasileira (AIB), the pro-Nazi movement founded by Plinio Salgado.  In 1934, the then Father Camara became part of the Supreme Council of the AIB. Two years later he was Salgado’s personal secretary, and thus the national Secretary of the AIB, a leading figure who took part in meetings and paramilitary  marches that aped the Nazis in Germany. His pro-Nazi convictions were so deep that he was ordained a priest wearing the integralist militia’s uniform under his cassock – the ill-famed “green shirt”.

In 1946, the Archbishop of Rio di Janeiro wanted to make him auxiliary  Bishop but the Holy See refused it because of his previous pro-Nazi militancy.  The nomination came only five years later. In the meantime, Helder Camara had completed his move from pro-Nazi integralism to pro-Marxist progressivism.

In 1968 when the Brazilian writer Otto Engel wrote a biography about Monsignor Camara, he received “summary orders” from the Olinda-Recife Curia which warned him not to publish it. The Archbishop didn’t want his pro-Nazi past being made known.

From JUC to PC.  Brazilian Catholic Action

In 1947, Father Camara was nominated Assistant General of the Brazilian Catholic Action, which,  under his influence, began to slide towards the  left, and in some instances even embrace Marxism-Leninism.  Migration was particularly evident in the JUC (Juventude Universitária Católica) which Camara was particularly close to.  Luiz Alberto Gomes de Souza, former secretary of the JUC, writes: “The action of the JUC militants (…) lead to an undertaking which bit by bit revealed itself to be socialist.” (2)

The Cuban Communist revolution (the year was 1959) was welcomed enthusiastically  by the JUC. According to Haroldo Lima and Aldo Arantes, JUC directors, “ the return of the peoples’ struggle and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 opened up the idea of a Brazilian revolution to the JUC.” The slide to the left was facilitated by the involvement of the JUC with the UNE (Uniao Nacional de Estudantes) which was close to the Communist Party. “As a result of its militancy in the student movement – Lima and Arantes continue – the JUC was obliged to define a wider political agenda for the Christians of today. It was thus, that at the 1960 Congress it approved a document (…) where it proclaimed its adherence to democratic socialism and the idea of a Brazilian revolution.” (3)

During the leftist government of President João Goulart (1961 – 1964) a radical faction was formed inside the JUC, called O Grupao, The Great Group, subsequently transformed into Ação Popular (AP) which in 1962, defined itself as Socialist.  At the 1963 Congress, the AP approved its Statutes where “it embraced socialism and proposed the socialization of the means of production.”  Statutes which contained, moreover, praise for the Soviet Revolution and a recognition of “the crucial importance  of Marxism in revolutionary theory and praxis.” (4)

This slide, however, didn’t stop there. At the 1968 National Congress, Ação Popular, defined itself Marxist-Leninist, changing its name to Ação Popular Marxista-Leninista (APML).  Seeing that there was nothing left to separate it from the Communist Party, in 1972 it was dissolved and integrated into the Brazilian  Communist Party. As a result of this migration, many militants of Catholic Action ended up being involved in the armed fight during the years of leftist terrorism in Brazil.   

Contrary to the advice of not a few bishops, Helder Camara was one of the most enthusiastic and convinced defenders of the JUC’s migration to the left. (5)

Against Paul VI and other eccentricities 

In 1968, while Pope Paul VI was on the point of publishing Humanae Vitae, Abp. Helder Camara , openly took sides against the Pontiff, describing his doctrine about contraceptives as “an error destined to torture wives and disturb the peace of many homes.”  (6) ...

Helder Camara also defended divorce, approving the position of the Orthodox Churches, which “didn’t preclude the possibility of a second religious marriage to those who had been abandoned (by their spouses).” Questioned on whether this would not have justified the secularists, he replied: “What’s the point of singing victory if you are right?

The restless Archbishop also asked loudly for the sacerdotal ordination of women.  Addressing a group of bishops during the Second Vatican Council, he asked with insistence: “Tell me, please, if you can find any effectively decisive argument  that impedes the admission of  women to the priesthood, or  is it [just]  a male prejudice?”

And it didn’t matter that the Second Vatican Council subsequently precluded this possibility. According to Camara. “We must go further than the conciliar texts where it is in our competence to interpret them”. Yet, the yearning didn’t stop there. In a conference held in the presence of the Council Fathers in 1965, he stated: “I believe that man will artificially create life, and will arrive at the resurrection of the dead and (…) will achieve miraculous results of reinvigoration in male patients through the grafting of monkey’s genital glands.”    

Siding with the Soviet Union, China and Cuba

Dom Helder’s concrete taking the sides of Communism (even if sometimes he criticized its atheism) were numerous and coherent.

For instance, his intervention of January 27th 1969 in New York, during the VI Conference of the Catholic Program of Inter-American Cooperation is sadly well-known.  It was an intervention so [clearly] siding with international Communism that it won him the epithet  “the Red Archbishop”, a nickname afterwards indissolubly linked to his name.

After harshly rebuking the USA and their anti-Soviet policy, Dom Helder proposed a drastic cut to the American  armed forces, while asking [at the same time] the USSR to maintain their military capacity in order to confront “imperialism”.  Aware of the consequences of such a strategy, he defended himself a priori: “Don’t tell me that such an approach would consign the world into the hands of Communism!”  From the attack against the USA, Helder Camara moved onto singing the praises of Mao Tse-Tung’s China, at that time in full “cultural revolution”, causing the death of millions.  The Red Archbishop formally requested the admission of Communist China to the United Nations with the consequent expulsion of Taiwan.  He finished his intervention with an appeal in favour of the Cuban Dictator, Fidel Castro, at that time busy sustaining bloody guerilla warfare in Latin America.  He also asked for Cuba to be re-admitted to the OEA (the Organization of the American States) from which it had been expelled in 1962.

A Project of Communist Revolution for Latin America

However, perhaps the episode that aroused the most astonishment was the so-called “Comblin affair”.
In June 1968 a bomb of a document was leaked out to the Brazilian newspapers, prepared under the auspices of Archbishop Helder Camara,  by the Belgian priest Joseph Comblin, professor at the Theological Institute (Seminary) of Recife. The document proposed, without veils, a subversive plan to dismantle the State and establish a “dictatorship of the people” of a Communist matrix.

Here are some of the points:

Against property. In the document, Comblin, defends a threefold reform – agricultural, urban and the business world  – originating  with the supposition that private property and, thus, capital are intrinsically unjust.  Any use of private property and capital whatever, should be forbidden by the law.
Total Equality.  The aim, affirms Comblin, is to establish total equality. Ever hierarchy, whether it is in the social-political camp or the ecclesiastical one, must therefore be abolished.
Social Political RevolutionIn the social-political camp, this egalitarian revolution supports the destruction of the State at the hands of radical “pressure groups” , which, once they have obtained power, will have to establish a strong “dictatorship of the people” to muzzle the majority, considered “indolent”.
Revolution in the Church.  In order to allow this radical minority to govern without hindrance, the document proposes the virtual annulment of the authority of the Bishops, who would be subject to the power of an organ made up only of extremists, a sort of ecclesiastic  “Politburo”.
The Abolition of the Armed Forces.  The Armed Forces must be dismantled and their weapons distributed to the people.
The Censure of the press, radio and TV. Until the people have arrived at an acceptable level of “revolutionary conscience”, the press, radio and TV must be strictly controlled. The elite who are not in agreement  with this must leave the Country.
The People’s Courts. Accusing the Judiciary Power of being “corrupted by the bourgeoisie”,  Comblin proposes the institution of “extraordinary courts of the people” to apply the summary rite against those who oppose this revolutionary wind.
Violence. If by chance it were not possible to accomplish this subversive plan through normal means, the professor from the Seminary in Recife considered the recourse to arms  legitimate, in order to establish manu militari, the regime he had theorized.
The Support of Helder Camara
The “Comblin Document” had the effect of an atomic bomb in Brazil.  In the midst of the heated polemics that followed it, Father Comblin, did not deny the authenticity of the document, but said that it was “only a rough draft” (sic!). The Curia in Olinda-Recife, for its part, admitted that it came from the diocesan Seminary, specifying however, that “it is not an official document.” (another sic!).
Interpreting the legitimate indignation of the Brazilian people, Professor Plinio Correa de Oliveira, wrote at that time, an open letter to Monsignor Helder Camara, published in 25 newspapers.  We read in the letter: “I am sure of interpreting the sentiment of millions of Brazilian people, in asking Your Excellency to expel from the Theological Institute in Recife and from the Archdiocese itself,  the agitator who takes advantage of the priesthood to stab the Church, and abuse Brazilian hospitality by preaching Communism, dictatorship and violence in Brazil.”

Helder Camara replied evasively: “Everyone has the right to dissent. I simply hear all opinions.” But at the same time, he confirmed Father Comblin in his office as professor of the Seminary, backing him with his Episcopal authority . In the end, the Brazilian government revoked the Belgian priest’s residence permit  and he had thus to quit the country.

Liberation Theology

Monsignor Helder Camara is also remembered as one of the champions of the so-called “Liberation Theology”  condemned by the Vatican in 1984. 

Two declarations sum up  this theology. The first, by Dom Helder’s co-national, Leonardo Boff: “What we are proposing is Marxism and historical materialism in theology.” (9)  The second, by the Peruvian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, founding father of the current: “What we mean here regarding liberation theology is the involvement of the revolutionary political process”.  (10) Gutiérrez also explains the sense of this involvement: “Only by going beyond a society divided into classes. (…) Only eliminating private property of the wealth created by human work, will we be able to lay down the bases for a more just society.  It is for this that the efforts to project a new society in Latin America are tending more and more towards socialism”. (11)   

A book was dedicated exactly to this theme and recently published in Italy by Cantagalli “Liberation Theology: a lead life-jacket for the poor.” (12)

Friend of the Poor and of Freedom?

Perhaps the biggest falsehood about Helder Camara is the one that presents him as a friend of the poor and defender of freedom.

The title, defender of freedom fits very badly on one who sang the praises of some of the bloodiest dictatorships that constellated  the 20th century;  first Nazism, and then Communism in all of its variants: Soviet, Cuban, Chinese…     

Most of all, however, the title friend of the poor does not fit at all one who sustained regimes that have caused such terrifying poverty, described by the then Cardinal Ratzinger as “the shame of our times.” (13)                                                                                                                            
[Main excerpts. Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana]
1. Cfr. Julio LOREDO, L’altro volto di Dom Helder,  (The other Face of Dom Helder) “Tradition, Family, Property”, November 1999, pp. 4-5.
2. Luiz Alberto GOMES DE SOUZA, A JUC. Os estudantes católicos e a política, Editora Vozes, Petrópolis 1984, p. 156.
3. Haroldo LIMA e Aldo ARANTES, História da Ação Popular. Da JUC ao PC do B, Editora Alfa-Omega, São Paulo 1984, p. 27-28.
4. Ibid., p. 37.
5. See for example, , Scott MAINWARING, The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil, 1916-1985, Stanford University Press, 1986, p. 71.
6. Cfr. Helder PESSOA CÂMARA, Obras Completas, Editora Universitária, Instituto Dom Helder Câmara, Recife, 2004. Cfr. Massimo INTROVIGNE, Una battaglia nella notte, (A Battle in the Night)  Sugarco Edizioni, Milan 2008.
9. Leonardo BOFF, Marxismo na Teologia, in “Jornal do Brasil”, 6th april1980.
10. Gustavo GUTIÉRREZ, Praxis de libertação e fé cristã, Appendice a Id., Teologia da libertação, Editora Vozes, Petrópolis 1975, p. 267, p. 268.
11. Gustavo GUTIÉRREZ, Liberation Praxis and Christian Faith, in Lay Ministry Handbook, Diocese of Brownsville, Texas 1984, p. 22.
12. Julio LOREDO, Teologia della liberazione: un salvagente di piombo per i poveri, (Liberation Theolgy a lead  life-jacket for the poor)  Cantagalli, Siena 2014.
13. SACRA CONGREGAZIONE PER LA DOTTRINA DELLA FEDE, Istruzione Libertatis Nuntius, XI, 10. (The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).