Dom Hélder Câmara (1909-1999)

An Advocate for Liberation During Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

In the Father’s house we shall meet Buddhists and Jews, Muslims and Protestants—even a few Catholics too, I dare say … We should be more humble about people who, even if they have never heard of the name of Jesus Christ, may well be more Christian than we are.
Dom Hélder Câmara

Dom Hélder Câmara was the archbishop in Olinda and Recife, Brazil, during the years of the military dictatorship in that country. Camara was one of the leading voices of liberation theology coming out of Latin America. (His name ironically is of a Dutch naval base which his parents picked at random from a school atlas.)

From Fascisim to Liberation

He began his ministry as a conservative, embracing Integralism, the philosophy of Brazilian fascism which the military used in their dictatorial rule. As the Catholic Church began working on the Vatican II process, however, Camara began to connect his theologizing to the plight of the poor. Soon he became and would continue throughout his life to be a bold and persistent advocate for justice toward the poor.

Grassroots Mobilization of the Urban Poor for Justice

Camara’s theology didn’t come from an academic context but from the grassroots of the urban poor. He encouraged the formation of small groups called base communities that studied the Bible while making direct application to the situations of injustice and violence they experienced daily. These small groups stimulated people to think about the values of their faith and to stimulate their involvement in movements for justice and social change. Through Camera’s leadership along with other Catholic liberationist bishops between eighty to one hundred thousand base communities sprang up in Brazil. They challenged the authorities on issues such as wages, control of land, sanitation, police repression, and human rights.

The Spiral of Violence

Camara analyzed what he called the spiral of violence, elucidated in a booklet he wrote with that title. The spiral of violence began with violence number one, the institutionalization of structural oppression that is wielded by those in power. This oppression breeds anger among the oppressed, that can then break out into the violence of despair or revolt, violence number two. The violence coming from the oppressed them is the excuse for those in power to engage in repression in the name of law and order, violence number three.

The spiral of violence seems inescapable as each side provokes the violence of the other and uses the violence of the other to justify its own violence. Camara called on people, especially youth, to break out of the spiral of violence through the practice of nonviolence. He called for radical but peaceful social transformation. His two efforts to mobilize movements for change in Brazil, one a political party and the other a non-governmental organization, were both crushed by the military regime.

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

Because of his strong voice against the oppression of the military dictatorship in Brazil, Dom Hélder Câmara was often the target of accusations, criticism, and death threats (one of his young assistant priests was murdered by Brazil’s death squads). He famously responded, When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. He also said, Without justice and love, peace will always be the great illusion. When he gave a speech in Paris condemning torture of Brazil’s political prisoners, the military censored all mention of Camara in the Brazilian media.

Awarded The People’s Prize

In 1973 Dom Hélder Câmara was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee, a previous Peace Prize recipient. Instead that year Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ were awarded the prize because of the Vietnam peace talks. In protest of this choice students from across Europe raised money to present Dom Hélder Câmara The People’s Prize.

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