FROM A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
THE Church hierarchy of the world's largest Catholic country has been at loggerheads with the Army for two years. Both sides. it is apparent, would like to make peace. but neither can see its way clear to doing so.
The relationship between Church and military declined sharply in December, 1968, when the then President, da Costa e Silva, issued Institutional Act Number 5, authorising mass arrests, censorship of the press, cancelling the right of Habeas Corpus, and closing Congress.
In the two subsequent years, it is estimated that 50 priests have been in and out of jail on suspicion of subversion. In February 1969, the 24 members of the Central Commission of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) issued a declaration calling for the return of democratic rights. That call has gone unheeded. Last October in fact, President Emilio Garrastazu Medici, successor to Costa e Silva, announced that Institutional Act No. 5 would not be revoked "in the near future."
Pope Paul has publicly condemned torture on at least two occasions this year, and although he has not mentioned Brazil by name in the rebukes, it is clear that they were directed at that country.
AN OPEN EAR The Army, for its part, has given notice to the Church that priests involved in underground terrorist movements are subject to long periods of arrest while their case is investigated. Members of the hierarchy find that Brazil's military leaders, regardless of their differences with the Church, are nevertheless usually willing to offer an open ear, and let high-ranking clergymen speak to defend clerics.
Beyond that, the going is slow and difficult. High-ranking members of the hierarchy and members of the military establishment freely admit, in private, that Church-State relations have reached a crisis of confidence.
"Things are not as bad now as they were in December of 1968, but they are still bad," a Church spokesman commented recently. "The generals say, when we meet with them in private, that they have nothing against us, but priests continue to be thrown in jail and held incommunicado. We don't want special treatment. But everyone is entitled to their human rights."
Still in jail are four priests and four Dominican seminary students. They are being held incommunicado. The progressive wing of the Church, before December 1968 vocal in urging social reform, has now gone on the defensive. Priests and nuns have marched sideby-side with students in street demonstrations; but now all types of street demonstrations have been outlawed, and the Leftist student organisations dissolved.
DISCREET MEETINGS 'The social mission of the Church continues, but our meetings have to be very discreet," commented one progressive priest.
The Conservative hierarchy meanwhile, is raising its voice and receiving official encouragement to do so. For example the Archbishop of Uberaba, Dom Jose Pedro Costa, no doubt stated what many in his audience were thinking when on November 30 he said in a lecture at the Superior War College; "A minority, unfortunately acting within the Church, confuses the social destiny of the Church, preached by Jesus Christ, with the socialist doctrine of Marx."
An Army intelligence colonel put it this way: "We're not going to let anybody use the priest's frock as a cloak for subversion and get away with it."
With a population of ninety million, Brazil is the largest official Catholic country in the world. Both Church and State are embarrassed by the current conflict that is straining their traditional close relationship, and leaders of the two sides would just as soon patch up their differences.
"It is really a shame that this had to happen," an army spokesman said. "The Church could be such a great factor for national unity."
PROGRESSIVES Much of the friction between the Church and State in Brazil revolves around one man, Dom Helder Camara, the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. The leader of the progressives in the Church, Dom Helder travels abroad frequently on lecture tours and attacks the military-based government of Brazil. He has accused it of political repression and a "go slow" attitude on social reforms.
Military intelligence officers consider Dom Helder an agitator, but they have refrained from arresting him for fear the publicity might backfire.
Recently a wave of attacks on Dom Helder appeared in the Brazilian press. The Governor of Sao Paulo State, Abreu Sodre, called the archbishop a "Fidel Castro in a priest's frock."
Conservative members of the Church hierarchy, though opposed personally to Dom Helder's views, complained directly to President Medici that they felt the press attacks were government-inspired and should be stopped.
After their protest, the attacks died down considerably, illustrating two important points: both the Church and State regard each other with suspicion, but retain important lines of communication and manoeuvre.
I asked one important church leader what he thought of President Medici. "Well, he's a Catholic. So are many of the generals, too, devout Catholics."