Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), once Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Brazil, was a seminal figure in the development of liberation theology. Camara advocated for reform on behalf of the poor within the government of Brazil and the Roman Catholic Church. He faced formidable opposition in both contexts.
In his book The Desert is Fertile, Camara acknowledges the necessity of institutions yet encourages their constant reform.
However right and necessary it is to attack the faults of these institutions, it is a grave mistake to think they can simply be wiped out for a fresh start to be made. It is impossible to live outside a minimum structure or organisation. Unfortunately even those structures which are most effective and reasonable to begin with always become intolerable (40).
Camara recognizes that the temptation to disregard institutions for a “fresh start” exists across religious and non-religious groups.
Young buddhists, shintoists, moslems, jews, catholics, and atheists all have the same reaction today to their own structures. This advice is for all of them: be aware of the temptation and take steps to overcome it (40).
He encourages the inhabitants of those traditions to resist the temptation to abolish institutions and to seek strength in numbers to reform them from within.
Instead of feeling beaten, instead of quitting and imagining how to reform the institution from the outside, would it not be better to think that within the institution itself and in all sorts of places there are others who are in the middle of the very same experience? Why not see an intelligent and effective way, which would also be loyal and constructive, of contacting all these others who are also anxious to serve their neighbour better? I do not mean condemning those who are more conservative or plotting against them. I mean you need not feel isolated, you need not be discouraged, when you are trying to revitalise the institution itself from within (39).
Camara seeks harmony. He is hopeful that people can generate creative resolutions out of the natural tension over the present and future mission of a particular insitution, especially to direct the energies and resources of the institution to the aid of the poor.
Camara summarizes his point with a short poem:
The harmonist I admire and envy your rare ear, true to each note discerning falsity however slight. And even more your mastery, blending the dissonant into harmony. – Dom Helder Camara
See: Dom Helder Camara, The Desert is Fertile, translated by Dinah Livingstone. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974. All spelling and capitalization in the above-quoted passages follow the translation.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies