Around the time of Vatican II, a group of socialist bishops signed a secret manifesto called the Pact of the Catacombs. It received its name from having been signed at a church near the catacombs in Rome. Most of the signatories of the secret manifesto came from Latin America. According to the text of the Pact of the Catacombs, the bishops pledged to politicize the Church for the sake of ushering in the “advent of another social order.” The pact read like something that a committee of a high school socialist organization might have scribbled out:
We will do our utmost so that those responsible for our government and for our public services make, and put into practice, laws, structures and social institutions required by justice and charity, equality and the harmonic and holistic development of all men and women, and by this means bring about the advent of another social order, worthy of the sons and daughters of mankind and of God.
Under the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, talk of the pact evaporated.
“It had the odor of communism,” Brother Uwe Heisterhoff explained to reporter David Gibson. But after the election of Pope Francis, Cdl. Walter Kasper, among other figures, drew attention to the pact. Indeed, Kasper saw the election of Francis as its vindication — the Church had finally embraced a pope who embodied its socialist spirit.
“It was forgotten,” Kasper said to Gibson. “But now [Francis] brings it back. … His program is to a high degree what the Catacomb Pact was.”
One of the signatories to the pact was Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who served as the head of the archdiocese of Olinda and Recife from 1964–1985. He was famous for his open socialism. He put his support for it in the most flattering terms: “My socialism is special, it’s a socialism that respects the human person and goes back to the Gospels. My socialism it is justice.”
During that era of political upheaval, armed socialist struggle was common, and Camara couldn’t bring himself to condemn it: “I respect a lot priests with rifles on their shoulders; I never said that to use weapons against an oppressor is immoral or anti-Christian. But that’s not my choice, not my road, not my way to apply the Gospels.”
Under previous popes, a canonization movement for a figure like Camara would have been unthinkable. Not so under Pope Francis, who routinely commingles Catholicism with radical left-wing politics. In 2015, his Congregation for the Causes of Saints stunned conservatives and delighted liberals by quickly approving a request that the canonization process for Camara be opened up — a development the heterodox publication America called “ground-breaking.”
America noted Pope Francis’ fondness for Camara: “Pope Francis remembers him; they have much in common. Addressing the Brazilian bishops in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Francis recalled ‘all those names and faces which have indelibly marked the journey of the church in Brazil’ and listed Dom Helder among them.”
According to a recent report from Crux, the canonization movement for Camara is picking up speed: “Brazilian icon of liberation theology moves closer to sainthood.” It reports that “the diocesan phase of a canonization process for the late Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil closed on Dec. 19.”
The postulator of his cause is Capuchin Fr. Jociel Gomes. He spoke to Avvenire, a publication for the Italian bishops that serves as a bellwether of this pontificate. His comments suggested that Camara could get a boost from the recent canonization of Oscar Romero, another Latin American prelate whose politics appealed to Pope Francis: “Both had a deep intimacy with God. Both were pioneers of what Pope Francis preaches today with such vehemence: A church that reaches out, capable of reaching geographical and existential peripheries.”
Camara was nothing if not a forerunner of this liberalizing pontificate. Like Pope Francis, he combined an unusually aggressive commitment to left-wing politics with modernist theology. Nicknamed the “red” bishop, he supported the Orthodox tradition of permitting divorce and remarriage. It is not hard to imagine him supporting Amoris Laetitia.
He supported women priests and described the Church’s prohibition on contraceptives as “an error destined to torture wives and to disturb the peace of many homes,” though later claimed to applaud Pope Paul VI for Humanae Vitae. He played a leading role in the politicization of the Latin American bishops, pushing them to embrace socialist liberation theology at a 1968 conference in Medellin, Colombia.
All of this turned him into a celebrity among members of the liberal elite, who took delight in his suggestion to Pope John XXIII that he “should, in a symbolic gesture, hand over the Vatican and all its fine works of art to UNESCO, and go to live in a much more modest building as Bishop of Rome,” reported The Independent.
Much of the rhetoric and gestures of this pontificate were anticipated by Camara. Is it any wonder that his canonization movement proceeds apace? In the past, popes measured sanctity by traditional works of orthodoxy and holiness. This pontificate measures it by left-wing political engagement. But will this famously pacifist pope canonize a bishop who extolled priests with “rifles on their shoulders”?
If so, it will reveal once again Pope Francis’ desire to remake Catholicism in a liberal image — a socialist church in which the Gospels are swapped out for the Pact of the Catacombs.