spend more time in poor communities rather than in the comfort of elite spaces where they had traditionally worked. Indeed, Berryman describes liberation theology as primarily a “pastoral shift” involving “significant numbers of Church people…[going] to the poor and [engaging] them in a reinterpretation of their own religious tradition in a way that is more biblically based and gives them a transformative rather than a fatalistic stance toward the world” (42).
Involved in this process of “going to the poor” was the creation of ecclesial base communities, or Comundiades Eclesias de Base (CEBs). CEBs were one of the first methods of putting liberation theology into practice used by priests and lay leaders, and were designed to be a more informal space where people could talk about their own lives in relation to Biblical texts. Although the birth of CEBs cannot be precisely dated, rural as well as urban priests began sponsoring them in the early 1960s, and “by the end of the 1960s the base-community model had gained wide acceptance” throughout Latin America (Berryman 67). Originally the CEBs did not have a political goal, but were based in a Church desire to revive Catholicism in the countrysides and other places where faith had seemingly been lost and where the Church’s main methods of spiritual outreach, usually geared towards the wealthier classes, did not resonate. Yet as more priests and lay leaders began to deepen their commitment to the poor, CEBs became sites where people were encouraged to think about their lives and sufferings in terms of the Bible’s image of a just society (Berryman). Furthermore, simply by engaging significantly with large populations of the poor, support for and creation of CEBs represented a major development in both the Brazilian government and Church, both of which had historically avoided creating autonomous spaces in which the masses could meet and discuss their lives (Mainwaring 1986).
Despite the apparent widespread practice of and support for liberation theology during this era, many officials in the Catholic hierarchy maintained a tenuous or neutral stance on the subject. Theologians were at times accused of Marxist or overly political readings of Biblical texts. As early as the 1978 CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico, documents denouncing liberation theology were making their way into official Church publications. Especially starting with the papacy of John Paul II, critics of liberation theology began to have more power in the Church’s direction overall, and the Pope himself supported measures to limit progressive measures in the Church. In one case of targeted punishment for outspoken progressive priests, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger denounced Leonardo Boff and forbade him from writing or teaching until further notice from the Vatican. Boff was a Brazilian priest who was widely respected for his writings on liberation theology, but he had also criticized many aspects of the Church itself in those same writings (Berryman 1987). Ratzinger—currently Pope Benedict XVI—was later quoted as calling liberation theology “a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church” (Rohter 2005). In his analysis of the development and decline of popular Brazilian Church during the second half of the 20th century, Mainwaring emphasizes
especially the importance of hierarchical support in allowing progressives to make their voices heard and Sharp