SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Father James Crowe says he doesn't like to put a "liberation" label on the grass-roots work that has earned him acclaim in Sao Paulo's infamous Jardim Angela district, one of this sprawling city's toughest neighborhoods.
As a priest of Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church for almost 20 years, Crowe has organized peace marches, worked closely with addicts and criminals, and pressed the government and church to aid the impoverished masses, not hesitating to stand up to politicians and the Catholic hierarchy.
"I'd rather not use the name: There's no use provoking people," says the jeans-clad Irish priest, 62, sitting inside a rectory where the front office bears a photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary. "But what is all this except the theology of liberation? It's the Gospel, isn't it?"
Pope Benedict XVI arrives today in the world's largest Catholic nation, where one of his major irritants, the socialist-influenced liberation theology, remains a potent force, especially in theology schools and among Catholic foot soldiers such as Crowe.
Wide economic gap
Priests infused with social consciousness mingle among the multitudes from slums and jungle settlements in a nation where the gap between rich and poor is among the widest on the planet.
Padre Jaime, as Crowe is known, says he sees his role as delivering worshipers "from slavery to freedom, from subhuman to human conditions, from death to life."
"Isn't that what liberation theology, or any theology, is all about?" he says in the still-discernible brogue of his homeland.
Benedict's admonitions seem unlikely to stamp out liberation theology in a troubled Brazilian church grappling with a severe shortage of priests and a continuing hemorrhaging of the faithful to evangelical sects and the bulging ranks of nonbelievers.
In some other South American nations, such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the church leadership was seen as aligned with past dictatorships. In Central America, notably El Salvador and Guatemala, militaries killed scores of priests and Catholic workers, inevitably labeling them "communists."
The Brazilian Catholic Church, including some of its top hierarchy, was essential in the formation of a dissenting wave that helped oust the military dictatorship and culminated in the election of a former union firebrand, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as president.
"During most of my union leader life I was closely linked to church movements working for a Brazil with more justice," Lula said on his radio program this week.
Benedict plans to canonize the first Brazilian-born saint and celebrate Mass at the nation's foremost shrine to the Virgin Mary during his five-day visit.
The high-profile public acts are clearly aimed at so-called devotional, or traditional, Catholics. The Catholic leadership argues that political content tends to turn off these core Catholics and drive them to Protestant sects.
"A lot of people don't want to hear the priest talking about land reform or political problems or whom you should vote for," said Luiz Felipe Ponde, theologian at Pontifical Catholic University here.
Nonetheless, the influence of liberation theology has persisted here and elsewhere in Latin America despite denunciations from Rome and visits from beloved Pope John Paul II, whose experience in communist Poland helped alienate him from the Marxist-influenced theology.
The theology has also remained popular despite the sanctioning of Leonardo Boff, a former Brazilian priest who was one of the movement's luminaries, by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, who at the time was a top aide to John Paul.
Brazilian church leaders are aware of the seeming disconnect between Rome's dictates and the reality in places such as Jardim Angela.
"You can understand how a socialist interpretation of Christianity, offering answers and solutions, was attractive in places like Brazil," Msgr. Karl Josef Romer, former auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro and now a top Vatican aide, told journalists in Rome before the pope's arrival in Sao Paulo.
"We want to work for the poor, but without imposing a Marxist structure on it."
Concerns about Chavez
Another top Vatican cleric, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, spoke to the Brazilian media of the pope's concern about the rise of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a socialist who has frequently clashed with church leaders in that South American country.
"We see populism and demagoguery in some countries," Hummes said, in a clear reference to Chavez.
For priests such as Crowe, the edicts from Rome sometimes seem disconnected from the daily struggles of the faithful.
For instance, a recent papal declaration labeling marriages after divorce a "scourge" didn't quite square with the reality of Jardim Angela, where single-parent families constitute a wide majority, Crowe said. The headlines in Brazil, blaring the word praga -- Portuguese for "plague" -- didn't reflect reality, he said.