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The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 572-573

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Lost for Words?—Brazilian Liberationism in the 1990s. By Goetz Frank Ottmann. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 2002. Pp. ix, 227. $39.95.)

Liberation Theology has been, in many quarters, dismissed as a thing of the past, a radical theological fad that ran its course. This assessment is not only rash and inaccurate, but it also reflects the wishful thinking of those who have never quite understood it. Goetz Frank Ottmann's study of the liberationist movement in the last ten years was done among the Christian communities of Brasilandia, a diocese in the northern periphery of São Paulo run by progressive Bishop Angélico Sândalo Bernardino, where the Base Christian Communities (CEBs) have multiplied from twenty to 106 in the last ten years. Ottmann traces the crisis, fragmentation, and transformation of the liberationist movement during the 1990's and into today. His methodology of "empathetic social intervention" through observation, comparison, and analysis as well as personal dialogue and engagement in the liberationist struggle makes for a balanced and realistic portrayal of what has been happening since Liberation Theology became the voice of the voiceless and the anchor for the militancy of the Brazilian Church during the 1970's and 1980's.

Liberation Theology and the liberationist movement emerged at a time when the Latin American Church was too friendly toward repressive anti-Communist dictatorships, lacking its prophetic voice, and in desperate need of a wake-up call. Liberation Theology took Vatican Council II seriously, from its return to the concept of the Church as the people of God to the logical stance of the preferential option for the poor. After the basic principles of liberationism had become an integral part of the pastoral care of the post-Vatican II Latin American Church and the hard times had passed, the apparent radicalism, the militancy, the urgency, the prophetic denunciations, and the confrontations over the State's human rights abuses gradually ceased. By the mid-'90's, without the visible engagement of the hierarchy in the liberationist "struggle," and with a changed socio-political climate, the liberationist movement had entered a serious crisis.

Ottmann lines up a number of reasons for the crisis, fragmentation, death, and resurrection of liberationism in the 1990's.

  • The waning of some of the most radical practices and creativity;
  • Diminishing institutional support as the Church withdrew from politics, reasserted the religious character of the CEBs, and purged the movement of its basista ideas [End Page 572] (the people as agents of their own liberation, the authenticity of the popular culture, the religious character of the struggle);
  • Events in the bairros of the periphery, such as a changed political climate, secular militancy of the Left, exhaustion, and apathy after a number of demands had been met (housing, running water, asphalt, health care);
  • Failure by liberationist leaders to construct a new synthesis between popular politics and progressive Catholicism;
  • The increasing popularity of the charismatic movement now sweeping the Brazilian Catholic Church; and, most of all,
  • The failure to rework the symbolic universe of the struggle in view of changed times and new challenges.

In the end, the militants themselves were contesting the efficacy of the symbolic universe and challenging the institutional framework of clerical bossism and patriarchalism.

In spite of all these issues, Ottmann also shows that liberationism is not dead at all, but rather, has been transformed and is fashioning a new synthesis. It is no longer tied to group militancy, but to social organizers, interveners, and consultants who resort to "more flexible and pragamatic models of action." He also shows that liberationism has not lost its appeal among the popular classes, as demonstrated by the rise of a new radical feminism and by the appropriation of most of its symbolic universe by Afro-Brazilian rap groups of São Paulo's periphery. These groups see race as secondary, refuse to abide by the rules of the capitalist system, and reject the aesthetics of the rich. Most notable among them is Brazil's number-one...


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