Cardinal Arns of Brazil on Pope John Paul II, the Vatican and the poor

About the author
Laura Greenhalgh is a journalist in SÌ£o Paulo, Brazil

Laura Greenhalgh: How was your relationship with Pope John Paul II?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: Whenever a cardinal goes to Rome he is expected to have an audience with “the boss”! And that is what I did.

On certain occasions I left Brazil thinking that the pope must not be too pleased with me. But every time I arrived, John Paul II had three questions for me: Are you taking care of the poor? Are you taking care of the workers? Are you taking care of the youth?

This was what he always wanted to know about Brazil and especially about São Paulo, since I was responsible for an enormous flock of 10 million people.

Laura Greenhalgh: What were your answers?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: He never gave any sign that he disapproved of what I was doing in São Paulo. I could have been admonished for accepting the books on liberation theology, for example. But he never mentioned this to me, even when we were alone. He never mentioned anything that displeased him. I am sure he did all he could to understand the situation of those who were suffering.

Laura Greenhalgh, who conducted this interview with São Paulo’s Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns for O Estado de São Paulo, writes:

“The cardinal is 83 years old, a year younger than the late Pope John Paul II, and thus can no longer participate in the conclave that will choose the next pope. He answered my questions with the complete frankness that, he said, he had always shown to the pope. He repeated, with emphasis: always!

“In the past he faced disgruntled generals and conservatives in the church’s hierarchy; now he devotes himself to the poor, the aged and the babies that are born in the archdiocese’s maternity home for needy mothers. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times.

“I had to laugh when I asked him if he were ever considered papabile (a candidate for the papacy). His answer was: only by my favourite football team, Corinthians!

“What pleases Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns are the seven pastoral plans implemented in São Paulo, one of the largest archdioceses in the world. He created forty-three new parishes in poor areas on the outskirts of the city and more than 1,000 basic Christian communities. Today he lives simply, faithful to his motto as bishop: Ex spe in spem. Or in a free translation: From hope to hope!”


The church and the poor

Laura Greenhalgh: Did the pope know of the importance you and Archbishop Helder Camara had in Brazil and Latin America?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: We never talked about this. When we met we had real facts to discuss. He used to compare Brazil with his knowledge of Poland and Russia, countries that had also known totalitarian governments. We shared experiences.

There is another aspect to consider. In 1983 and for the next eight years, I was secretary of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. I had responsibility for recording the conclusions of one synod and drafting the documents in preparation for the next. Nothing of what we prepared was ever taken into consideration. Very competent people carried out the whole process, but the texts were never used.

Pope John Paul himself, or whoever he delegated, drafted the synod’s conclusions. He was a man who wanted authority to be respected. I always respected him and, at the time, never made this fact public.

Laura Greenhalgh: Are you saying that the pope changed the conclusions of the synods?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: The conclusions were formulated in such a way that they no longer reflected what had been said in the discussions.

Laura Greenhalgh: What did you think of the pope’s theological sensitivity to the situation of the poor?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: What was dear to his heart is the unity of the church in the face of evil. He always saw evil as penetrating the world through poverty, through youth. We in Latin America saw the poor as evangelisers, but he did not see things in exactly the same way.

The pope did much for Africans and for peace in that continent, as well as in the former communist countries. He did not only think about their problems but acted with great energy. He helped to build a world in which the rich countries could help the poor ones with a more just distribution of the world’s wealth. This is the concept he has of the world.

Laura Greenhalgh: You said that the Pope never rebuked you for supporting liberation theology, but the Vatican came down hard on this movement in the church.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: The pope himself wrote a letter that was read at an annual meeting of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, where he said that liberation theology was not only opportune, but necessary to the theological evolution of the church. This document was brought to Brazil by the prefect of the congregation of the bishops in Rome and was read to the assembly by Archbishop Ivo Lorscheiter. It is a personal letter of John Paul II and was never published in Rome.

Laura Greenhalgh: Do you think he changed his mind?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: John Paul II was always a man with a divided heart. As we all are in one way or another!

Laura Greenhalgh: Do you agree that liberation theology has lost space lately? For example, was the case of Leonardo Boff – silenced by the Vatican and afterwards leaving the priesthood - a landmark?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: There was a certain retreat caused by two very negative documents from Rome. Liberation theology was weakened in Latin America because of the loss of some of its best proponents. But it flourishes in India, in Africa and in the east. It is a seed that Latin America planted; others are collecting the fruits.

The retreat is also due to the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, and the promotion of Latin Americans who opposed liberation theology. As they took on more important roles and began to surround a weakened head of the church, their influence became tremendous. John Paul II, if he ever misjudged, it was because of those around him.


Who governs the church?

Laura Greenhalgh: It is said that the Roman Curia governed the church even when the pope was still alive and responsible for these functions.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: The last time I visited John Paul II was when I was retiring as Archbishop of São Paulo. I stood up to leave and he said: “Just a minute, Paulo, I have a letter for you…they gave me the text and I only have to sign it.” I suggested to him that we read it together.

It was very critical of me. I started to read it to him, translating from Portuguese into German, the language we conversed in. When we got to the third paragraph, the pope became indignant and said: “I am not going to sign this! I never said this about you, Paulo, and neither do I want it stated in a document.”

He threw the paper on the floor. I picked it up. Then he decided that I should write two lines saying that I had answered all the questions satisfactorily. He signed it and it must be filed somewhere.

Laura Greenhalgh: So you feel that the Curia interfered in your contact with the pope?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: Yes, because of the time he spent travelling. I told him once that he had abandoned the Roman Curia. He answered: “Not at all, the Roman Curia is I!” My reply was: “Holy Father, not even my little Curia in São Paulo is I!” When the Pope is absent, the Curia decides. If the image of the pope-as-pilgrim has done much good for the church, it also is true that many internal matters may have been neglected.

Laura Greenhalgh: Were you ever seen as a papabile, a candidate for the papacy?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: Only by my favorite football team! I would never have been considered because I was known for being aggressive with the military government. A pope who struggles forcefully against injustice causes problems for the church.


The church and Lula’s Brazil

Laura Greenhalgh: The left in Brazil always saw you as a protector. Many were communists, materialists and atheists.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: In the defense of human rights I never asked anyone if they had faith, or if they were Catholic. When people are being tortured it does not matter what colour, faith, or social class they are. We are all human beings and we need to be respected. If a drunk were arrested and tortured I would go to the prison to complain about this treatment. He is a human being who is being violated by those whose task is to defend the order. I never was in favour of communism or capitalism. I always wanted an alternative that I hoped would come with the election of President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva – a social system where all would have what is sufficient for a decent life and where there would be justice and equality. I do not see this happening and I would like to see it. In our country, 2% of the population has more wealth than the other 98%. This is a scandal.

Laura Greenhalgh: Are you disappointed with President Lula’s government?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: What annoys me is that this situation continues with a president who was always on our side, on the side of the worker who earns his bread with the sweat of his brow, as the scriptures put it. I become indignant when they cut social spending to raise the pay of the armed forces. I can’t accept this. Solving social problems is the proof of whether we are civilised or not.

Laura Greenhalgh: What hurts you most when you look at the poor?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: The church in São Paulo has a maternity home for poor mothers before, during and after the birth of their babies. It hurts me to see three mothers in the same bed because there is no money to buy more beds. The poor have to be born with health and with some prospect of normal growth. We try, but we cannot guarantee this.

Laura Greenhalgh: But think of the children in Africa condemned to live and die in the HIV/Aids epidemic. Do you accept the church’s veto of condoms?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: I cannot be against a decision of the pope’s. If it were my decision I would be against death and for life. The use of the condoms should not be interpreted as a liberalisation of sex. We have to understand that the body, the spirit and the soul are a unity. People have to be educated for sexuality as in other areas. And it is good to remember that problems begin in the family. Little by little we have to return to that which is indispensable for social harmony.

The next pope

Laura Greenhalgh: Describe the successor of John Paul II.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: I hope that the one elected, chosen by the Holy Spirit, would be someone capable of uniting east and west, all religions and philosophies of life. If this happens, humanity will have a chance to find peace. Peace among religions, and among the religious!

Laura Greenhalgh: Does this man exist?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: He’s a cardinal.

Laura Greenhalgh: Who is he?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: I dare not say. I trust the church and have hope for humanity.

Laura Greenhalgh: Will he follow the same path as John Paul II?

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: Let’s leave that to the Holy Spirit!

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, was secretary of the Synod of Bishops in Rome from 1983-91. His interview with Laura Greenhalgh on 10 February 2005 was published in O Estado de São Paulo and in the National Catholic Reporter. The translation from Portuguese to English was by Ana Flora, who has lived in São Paulo for more than forty years and who worked with Arns among the basic Christian communities in the São Paulo archdiocese.