Brazil’s Bolsonaro is worried about a new ‘leftist’ insurgency: The Catholic Church.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shows a pen during a Jan. 15 signing ceremony for the decree that eases gun restrictions in Brazil. (CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters)

This fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian Region is already heightening tensions between the Catholic Church in Brazil and the populist, right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro. The national newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported on Feb. 10 that the government believes the gathering of bishops will promote a “leftist agenda.” According to the paper, military ministers “see the church as a potential opponent” and intend to “neutralize” eventual critiques to the government during the synod.

The synod on the theme “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” was first announced by Pope Francis in 2017 and will take place in October in Rome. The gathering will include representatives from nine countries in the Amazon region: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana and Suriname.

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According to O Estado de S. Paulo,the Bolsonaro government fears that “leftist” leaders of the Catholic Church will fill the void created by Brazil’s weakened political left, which lost popular support and institutional strength after last year’s presidential election. A conservative wave led by Mr. Bolsonaro swept many right-wing candidates into office last January.

Internal documents prepared by officials at the national intelligence agency and by Brazilian military commanders allegedly discuss recent meetings of bishops with Pope Francis at the Vatican in preparation for the synod.

The Bolsonaro government fears that “leftist” leaders of the Catholic Church fill the void created by Brazil’s weakened political left.

General Augusto Heleno, the chief minister of the National Security Office and one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s closest advisers, told the newspaper that there is, in fact, a strong concern. “There has long been influence of the church and of N.G.O.s in the [Amazon],” General Heleno said, according to the report. In his view, the government’s job is to “strengthen Brazilian sovereignty and avoid that foreign interests prevail in the region.”

One church source in Brazil told America that some members of the armed forces resent the influence and popularity of the Catholic Church in the Amazon.

Asked by journalists about the accuracy of the reports, the security office stated in a press release that “the Catholic Church is not the object of any kind of action” by national intelligence. It confirms, however, that the minister himself is concerned “with some points on the agenda of the Synod on the Amazon” because of issues of “national sovereignty.”

The statement continued, “We reiterate the understanding of the National Security Office that it is up to Brazil to take care of the Brazilian Amazon.” There are reports that different ministries will be involved in monitoring the bishops’ meeting, as well as Brazil’s embassies to the Vatican and to Italy.

In what is seen as an indirect response to news of the government’s dossier on the synod, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, the secretary general of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, recorded a short video for social media, describing the Synod for the Pan-Amazonian region as “a celebration of the church and for the church.”

The Vatican refused to comment on the matter. The secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, told America by email: “The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, through its secretary general, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, has already provided the necessary clarifications.”

In Brazil, references to “progressive clergy,” “red bishops” or “leftist” religious men and women are usually used to discredit Catholics involved in a variety of social justice movements. Priest, religious and lay people across the country work with small farmers, landless workers, migrants, the indigenous and the poor through groups like Comissão Pastoral da Terra and the Indigenist Missionary Council. While some activists are directly involved in politics, others adopt a nonpartisan approach.

Some members of the armed forces resent the influence and popularity of the Catholic Church in the Amazon.

Priests and religious people were among the founding members of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (known by its Portuguese abbreviation, P.T.) in the 1980s, years in which the country was governed by a repressive military dictatorship. Weakened over the years by systemic corruption, the P.T. lost the support of many Catholics who work for social justice. Mr. Bolsonaro, a champion of right-wing populism,defeated the P.T. in last year’s presidential elections.

According to Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and a religion commentator in Brazilian media, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration sees “the left” as their major enemy.

“In fact, there are many Catholics with leftist positions—as there are those on the right, too,” Mr. Ribeiro Neto said. But he pushed back on the idea that the Synod on the Amazon had a political agenda. Its aims, he said, “are anchored in the social teaching of the church.”

“A synod on the Amazon must focus on local challenges for evangelization. It is not an ideological invention of the moment but the recognition of a need for an evangelizing action that is well reflected and conscious,” he said.

Preserving the “peoples of the forest” is neither an exclusive mission of the Catholic Church nor a “leftist agenda” issue, he added. Mr. Ribeiro Neto noted that a large part of the population in the region “is excluded from the processes of human and socioeconomic development due to poverty and the geographic isolation imposed by the forest.”

“There is a techno-scientific consensus, rather than [an] ideological [one], that the occupation of tropical forests should not be done in the same patterns as the occupation of temperate zones,” the professor said. “The recognition of human rights and dignity of all populations, regardless of their economic and social status or ethnicity, is also accepted worldwide as a condition for democratic coexistence and peace. The problem is that the Bolsonaro government has put itself, ideologically, in opposition to these consensuses.”

In order to protect the “small ones”—the poor and those living on the margins—the church must engage in dialogue with all of the actors who hold interests in the Amazon.

The president of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network and Pope Francis’ close adviser in the Amazon, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes also stated in a video that it is not the church’s intention “to promote a new nation” in the Amazon.

He told America that, in order to protect the “small ones”—the poor and those living on the margins—the church must engage in dialogue with all of the actors who hold interests in the Amazon: international companies, scientists, the military, national and local governments—even if, at times, they are hostile to the church’s message.

“The church must always try the way of dialogue. Some [disagreements] will be irreducible, but we shall pursue a culture of encounter. The church does not wish to build a new Amazon. If someone sees it differently, we shall talk to them,” the cardinal said.

In a lecture to seminarians at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo on Feb. 19, Cardinal Hummes recalled that Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is more than an explanation for why the church should engage on environmental issues.

“We shall form a network because we cannot act on our own. Only with the help of God we can join forces to care for our common home,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Hummes supports Pope Francis’ idea that “money is the main obstacle on the road to the kingdom of God.” The archbishop emeritus of São Paulo and former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy has been a close friend to the pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“We must find new models of development that respect the Amazon. It is currently a target for colonialism: People and organizations come and want to install their models without asking permission to local populations nor respecting their origins and traditions. Even the church has done that,” he admitted.

For the cardinal, the main goal of this synod is clear: finding new paths for the church in the Amazon. That includes situating the church in a global context of environmental issues and “saving the possibility of saving the planet.”

“Caring for the earth is a mission that God delivered to us. It is a mission of the church, and she cannot stay away from it—not only in the Amazon but let us think also of other places, for instance, the Congo Basin,” Cardinal Hummes said. The synod is also about overcoming a “technocratic paradigm,” he said, and promoting an “integral ecology.”

“We are a fruit of this planet, created by God. And God incarnated in Jesus Christ and made this interconnection permanent,” Cardinal Hummes said. “Everything is interconnected in our common home.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Barbieri
5 months 4 weeks ago

A very well written but sad article. Brazil is a beautiful country being ruined by various factions. Demanding everything often is a sure way to getting nothing.

J Cosgrove
5 months 4 weeks ago

worried about a new ‘leftist’ insurgency: The Catholic Church

What is new about it? Latin America, Catholic countries under Catholic political policies for centuries, is one of the poorest and most violent areas of the world. Now the Catholic Church wants to double down on it wisdom? The Church has lost its way and has forgotten its basic mission. Jesus said "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Sosa, the head of the Jesuits, was a big time supporter of Chavez in Venezuela.

Robert Lewis
5 months 4 weeks ago

It was an ironic statement, uttered in an ironic tone, in order for Jesus to get himself off the hook with the Pharisees. He knew damned well that, ultimately, EVERYTHING belongs to His Father.

Jeffrey More
5 months 4 weeks ago

Are you suggesting that Jesus was afraid of the Pharisees? And where did you get this insight into Jesus’s sense of irony? What other statements of Our Lord Jesus Christ do you believe were uttered “ironically”?

Phillip Stone
5 months 4 weeks ago

It was a prophetic and regal instruction to the administrators of the Jewish law.
A word of power, simple truth.

J Cosgrove
5 months 4 weeks ago

Jesus came to the world to redeem people not set up a political or economic system. Hence the Caesar quote. The Catholic Church has an incredibly poor record in political areas. Their basic political philosophy essentially enslaved 98% of the population for 1500 years. The "Great Chain of Being" was a class system endorsed by the Catholic Church that impoverished most of the population throughout Christendom till the 1800's. It was the individual's place to be a serf/peasant/slave and never move from it. Now they are into equality when this philosophy has killed people by the hundreds of millions. All are against the natural law.

Gabriel Marcella
5 months 4 weeks ago

Some historical perspective is needed on this delicate issue in Brazil.. Treatment of the Amazon Indians has been a sensitive issue since the Portuguese arrived. In the colonial period the Crown sent Jesuits to protect the Indians and bring the faith to them. The colonists, however, sent slaving expeditions (bandeirantes) into the interior to seize Indians for labor on the plantations. Thus the Church fought to protect the human rights of Indians. Out of this effort came the famous Jesuit reducciones of Paraguay. The popes have produced 2 encyclicals on treatment of Indians in the Amazon, the last by Pius X, Lacrimabili Statu, 1912, can be read in English:http://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius10/p10ind.htm. It decries the exploitation of rubber workers in the Upper Amazon. The Church and the Brazilian military have a special affinity for the populations of the Amazon Basin, their missions are complementary: to protect them. In fact, it was a military officer, Marshal Candido Rondon, who founded the Indian Protection Bureau. He also saved Theodore Roosevelt's life during an expedition into the Amazon. To exploit this delicate issue for political purposes is an injustice to the Indians, and to the good people who worked and continue to work to protect them.

Phillip Stone
5 months 4 weeks ago

The suspicions and concerns of the centre of the road leader charged with ruling Brazil for the people to be safe, healthy and growing in prosperity from the work of their own hands in not misplaced.

The post-colonial life of continental South America has in the past been sabotaged by the USA through CIA and military advisers in the pay of the oligarchy holding most of the money and the land.
All over the continent, the exploited locals turned to revolutionary ideas and tactics becoming the puppets of a different sort of colonisation.

Love (LOVE) of money, not (NOT) money, is a moral issue.
The invention of tokens for goods and services liberated humans from hand to mouth existence - money and language are enormous blessings to us all, properly used.
I hope that Cardinal Hummes is misquoting the Pope.

Now, about this stuff and nonsense about saving the planet. Really?
We were created in an environment which would provide our entire needs and grant numerous delights as we flourished and remained in small numbers for quite a long time.
Whatever was the initial first plan, it was destroyed by the Fall and we were cast out of that ideal environment. FOREVER.

The only part of creation which we are commissioned to govern is ourselves as individuals and naming the animals. Yahweh did not hand over the rest of the created order to us.

Maybe the Amazon forest is special for some or many reasons, but it is NOT the lungs of the earth. It is well to remember that the Sahara Desert was covered by just such a lush forest some time ago when God was in charge of the planet alone.

The man-caused run-away global warming scare is a hoax, a lie, and very dangerous to individual liberty.

The Church Militant is charged with different duties and obligations - Jesus said, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' and
'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you' - the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Annu singh
5 months 2 weeks ago

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