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Arns is a symbol of human rights in Latin America


Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, retired cardinal archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, celebrates his 80th birthday Sept. 14. With this milestone the Holy Spirit loses an important voice in the next conclave, which will choose Pope John Paul II’s successor. Church law prohibits cardinals who have reached 80 from entering a conclave.

Since 1970, when he was appointed archbishop of São Paulo, the words “Dom Paulo” and “human rights” have come to be synonymous throughout Latin America. His uncompromising advocacy for the poor and oppressed have won him many friends and enemies in class-divided Brazil. He, together with Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, Archbishop Helder Câmara, and Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga led bold efforts to turn the church in Brazil on its head, breaking away from its centuries-old ties with the ruling elite and committing it to a radical social involvement and a preferential option for the poor.

At the 1992 meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Arns played a key role in blocking the efforts of the Roman curia to delegitimize liberation theology.

Penny Lernoux, the late NCR Latin America affairs writer, reported that Arns became involved in the human rights struggle almost immediately after his São Paulo appointment when the military’s secret police raided a priest’s house where they found papers advocating better wages for workers. Using the papers as alleged proof of “subversiveness,” the police brutally tortured the priest and his assistant. When Arns learned of the arrest he went to the governor’s office to protest and then to the prison where he was denied entrance. Outraged, he denounced the incident in the archdiocese’s newspaper and on its radio station. He then ordered a description of the arrest to be nailed to the door of every church in the city.

Lernoux termed the incident the beginning of “an open war between the archdiocese and the military.” The war would go on for years.

Arns then forced the Brazilian conference of bishops to take up the issue of torture, while he personally spoke out against it. The New York Times described his statement “as the strongest, most courageous affirmation ever made by a Brazilian prelate against the torture of prisoners.”

In his own investigation of institutionalized torture, Arns worked with a Presbyterian minister, Jaime Wright, to photocopy and smuggle out of the Brazil the military’s own records of torture in its jails. Wright’s brother, Paulo, had been “disappeared” and tortured to death by the military. A book based on these records, Brazil Never Again, quickly became a bestseller and created such a revulsion of public opinion that in 1985 the military was forced to withdraw to its barracks and return control to a civilian government. A 21-year period of terror ended, in no small way due to activity of these church leaders.

A native of Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil, Arns, a Franciscan, did advanced studies at the Sorbonne, taught as a professor at the Franciscan seminary in São Paulo and later at the Catholic University of Petropolis. Soon after becoming archbishop, Arns sold the Palácio Pio XII, the official residence of the archbishop, used the money for charitable work, and moved to a two-story house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. His place was burglarized twice before he decided to move to his new quarters, a little house in the back of a downtown monastery.

One had only to attend his Sunday afternoon Mass to understand how Arns became “the voice of the voiceless.” Small of stature like Dom Helder, Arns exuded the same energy and dynamism. The congregation presented a cross section of São Paulo -- professionals, working class, slum dwellers. He established an easy identification with all of them.

His 32-year legacy as archbishop was marked not only by confrontation with the military, which held power in Brazil until 1985, but also by well-publicized struggles with highly placed conservatives, including Cardinals Agnelo Rossi and Eugênio de Araújo Sales, in the church hierarchy.

When the liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, was called to Rome by the Office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to make his case before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Arns asked and was allowed to participate. Recalling that meeting in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper in 1996, Boff spoke of the archbishop’s combativeness: “Cardinal Arns even threatened Ratzinger. He said that he would denounce any persecution from the Vatican of liberation theology in Germany, where we were going to hold conferences before returning to Brazil.”

Arns has always been mistrusted by members of the curia because of his outspokenness and his connections to supporters of liberation theology. An important Protestant champion of liberation theology, Rubem Alves, was for many years an official member of the archdiocesan Commission on Peace and Justice, which engaged in many of the same activities as the Vicariate of Solidarity in Chile. It investigated cases of torture, missing persons and other violations of human rights. Its most sensational intervention was its denunciation of the torture and death of Wladimir Herzog, a Jew who was also a Marxist. Arns initiated a nation-wide letter campaign of protest, and he held an ecumenical service in the cathedral with Herzog’s family, a rabbi, and several Protestant ministers. The police tried to block access, but 8,000 people forced their way in.

The São Paulo archdiocese once comprised more than 6 million people and 250 churches. In the mid-1980s Arns submitted plans to the Vatican for dividing the megadiocese into smaller dioceses. Arns’ proposals were designed to ensure that a mixture of rich and poor people would be found in each of the proposed dioceses. After years of talks, Rome ignored these recommendations and carved four new dioceses out of the archdiocese, leaving Arns with the wealthy city center, while the impoverished outlying areas, which had been the heart of his ministry, were entrusted to new bishops.

Arns was succeeded in 1996 by Archbishop Claudio Hummes, another Franciscan, who reportedly did not make the list of names Arns had presented to the Vatican in response to a request from the Holy See.

Arns is working on an autobiography, which will be translated into English. [The editors are seeking someone to translate the book into English when the cardinal completes the work.]

Without Arns, were the conclave to be held next week, the following factors could influence the election of the next pope: 121 of the 130 voting cardinals have been chosen by Pope John Paul II; the largest nationality group is Italian, with 23; the largest regional group is Latin American, with 26; the average age of the cardinals who will choose the next pontiff is currently 71 years and nine months.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org. Gary MacEoin also contributed to this perspective.

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001 [corrected 09/21/2001]