Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (Church base Communities or CEBs) were launched by the Catholic Church in Brazil in the late 1960s at a time when the church was the only organisation strong enough to stand up to the oppressive military dictatorship of the time. In return sections of the church were treated as though they were communist subversives by the government
Several million Christians were involved, and CEBs were set up in other Latin American countries as well.
Base communities are small groups of people in the same poor neighbourhood, shantytown, village or rural area who meet regularly to read the Bible and discuss it in the light of their own experience of life. Gradually these debates and activities broadened , generally with the help of progressive clerics, and they began to take on social tasks – literacy courses, forming co-operatives and various kinds of mutual aid.
Frequently the CEBs coordinate their activities and give rise to social movements- struggles for housing, electricity and water in the shantytowns, struggles for land in the countryside. And in certain cases, the experience of these struggles led to politicization and to several leaders or members of the CEBs joining class-struggle parties or revolutionary fronts. (Incidentally at the same time the Catholic University Youth Movement in Brazil [Juventude Universitária Católica] helped set up the marxist-inspired People’s Action Party. Not surprisingly the Bishops dissolved the JUC in 1968.) Most of the members of CEBs are women, and most of the religious support comes from nuns.Through CEBs women have been empowered to enter the realm of politics.
Critics say the CEBs adopted a fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, that their mistrust of mainstream politics led to a rejection of political theory altogether, that they were too hostile/friendly to other left wing activists! (See Zingcreed Posts on Liberation Theology and Helder Camara). Of course when the Vatican bulldogs like Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict) got their teeth into them a lot of blood was spilt. (Former Nazi Youth member Ratzinger led the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which issued “An instruction on some aspects of ‘Liberation Theology’ ” in 1984, denouncing L. T. as a new type of heresy based on Marxist concepts.) Brazilian reactions forced the Vatican to backtrack soewhat, so their 1985 Instruction “Christian Lberty and Liberation” was milder. It retrieved certain themes of LT but “Spiritualised” them and stripped them of their social revolutionary content. Over the next few years the Vatican systematically replaced top clergy who retired or died with conservatives.
Several of the new mass movements that have developed in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America have their roots in the liberation Christianity of the CEBs:
- human rights groups
- neighbourhood committees
- trade unions
- landless peasants’ movement
- the Workers Party
(i) Serbin, K. “Secret Dialogues”
(ii) Löwy, M. “Christianity and Liberation in Latin America ” International Viewpoint 23/11/1987
(iii) Lowy, M. “The war of Gods” Verso (1996)