Published On: December 28, 2016

Brazil’s Brave Cardinal

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Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, whose advocacy of human rights placed him in opposition to Brazil’s military dictatorship, died on Wednesday, December 21, in São Paulo. He was 95 years old.

“Where human rights are not respected, we speak out against them,” Cardinal Arns said in 1972 during the era of the military government, a year before he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI. “When these rights are defended, we find ourselves in support. Those who stain their hands with blood are damned. Thou shalt not kill.”

Dom Paulo, as he was known, became an enemy of the military government for his stance against the torture of political prisoners. After the murder in 1975 of journalist Vladimir Herzog, which the government labeled a suicide, Cardinal Arns led an ecumenical service, along with rabbis and a Presbyterian minister, that was attended by 8,000 people. Afterward, a group of bishops issued a pastoral letter that deplored torture, the denial of prisoners’ rights to a full legal defense, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

bookCardinal Arns helped develop Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never More), a voluminous investigative document that chronicled the military government’s torture of political opponents. Compiled largely in secret, it used military trial transcripts to build its case. It was published after the inauguration of a civilian government in 1985. The report eventually led to a Brazilian truth commission report in 2014 that identified 377 individuals responsible for human rights violations and called for their prosecution.

Cardinal Arns was born on September 14, 1921, in Forquilhinha, a small town in Santa Catarina state. His parents were German immigrants, and Dom Paulo was one of 13 children. One of Dom Paulo’s brothers was ordained a priest, and three of his sisters became nuns. Another of his sisters was a doctor who died in the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 doing humanitarian work.

Cardinal Arns was educated by the Franciscan Order in Brazil and ordained in 1945. He moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where he earned a Ph.D. After teaching at several schools, including the Catholic University of Petrópolis, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of São Paulo by Pope Paul VI in 1966 and made archbishop four years later. He sold the diocese’s residence to finance charitable works.


Cardinal Arns practiced liberation theology, a left-leaning branch of the Roman Catholic Church that focuses on empowering the congregation through political and civic involvement. The Vatican under Pope John Paul II opposed liberation theology, saying it was influenced by Marxism.

Cardinal Arns defended his views at the Vatican in a direct encounter with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and the chief defender of church doctrine at the time. Dom Paulo was in Rome accompanying the Brazilian theologian and friar Leonardo Boff, who had been summoned to Rome to defend his own advocacy of liberation theology. While there, Dom Paulo warned Cardinal Ratzinger that he would denounce persecution of liberation theology in Germany, the cardinal’s home country. Today, Pope Francis understands the merits of liberation theology.biography

Cardinal Arns angered conservatives in 1989 when he sent a letter to President Fidel Castro, on the 30th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. He wrote that Cuba was an example of social justice to Latin America. O Globo denounced Cardinal Arns’s support of Cuba. Dom Paulo responded that he and Fidel often exchanged letters, but that he was opposed to any dictatorship.

In 1979, when Cardinal Arns went to a morgue to retrieve the body of Santo Dias da Silva, a labor leader killed by the military police, officers backed away as he waved his hand. A lawyer, Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh, accompanied him to the scene. “We went in, and Cardinal Arns looked at the bullet holes on Santo’s body. He pointed his finger at the policemen and said, ‘Look what you did!’ And all the officers lowered their heads in shame.” In his sermon at Mr. Dias’s funeral, Cardinal Arns said, “Every age, and sometimes every event, must have its Christ because only thus will the fellow workers remain united and will not lose hope.”

[Research for this article comes from The New York Times.]

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