Eleanor Sharp Liberation Theology in the 21st Century: The Catholic Church, the CPT, and Rural Movements in Southern Pará Research Synopsis SIT Study Abroad—Brazil: Amazon Resource Management and Human Ecology, Fall 2007
Liberation theology, defined by one writer as “an interpretation of Christian faith our of the experience of the poor,” has been widely recognized as an important development in theology and Latin American history that helped spark social movements across South and Central America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (Berryman 4). The breadth of Catholic faith across Brazil's population combined with the nation's historically extreme wealth gap made Brazil a fertile country for the theory and practice of liberation theology. Rural priests began working with poor Brazilians to improve their lives and futures, and the Catholic Church was able to play a crucial role in supporting the first social movements that developed as the military government began its period of abertura (opening) in the late 1970s and early 80s. In particular, the history of progressive Church work parallels the history of movements organizing for landless peoples’ rights. The Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) was started by the Church in 1975 to work specifically on land reform and support rural movements. The CPT is still active today, and in the state of Pará, they have worked with the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra), rural trade unions, and other local workers’ organizations in the rapidly developing region around the city of Marabá. Since the 1980s, however, the Catholic Church has changed direction both domestically and abroad, no longer putting as much direct emphasis on liberation theology and actually rejecting it on the international scene. The nature of social movements that have worked with groups like the CPT has also changed, as these movements have had success in reaching their strategic goals and claiming land and rights.
Based on such a setting, this study explores the present manifestation of liberation theology in the south of Pará. Using a combination primarily of semi-structured interviews and secondary-source research, it attempts to answer the question: How have changes in the Catholic Church influenced its use of liberation theology in working with rural movements in the south of Pará? Analysis of results reveals that while the Church certainly no longer maintains the broad commitment to poor people and social justice that it had in the 1970s and 80s, the practice of liberation theology continues by way of the CPT and progressive church leaders who remain in the area. However, the loss of full-scale hierarchical support of the Church has decreased the overall capacity of the CPT to support rural movements in reaching their goals and organizing across a broad base of people.