Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara ([dõ ˈɛwdeɾ peˈsoɐ ˈkɐ̃mɐɾɐ]; February 7, 1909 – August 27, 1999) was a Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop. He was the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, serving from 1964 to 1985, during the military regime of the country.
An advocate of liberation theology, he is remembered for his social and political work for the poor and for Human Rights and democracy during the military regime. Câmara preached for a church closer to the disfavoured people and for non-violence. He is quoted as having said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
He was born Hélder Pessoa Câmara in Fortaleza, Ceará, in the poor Northeast Region of Brazil. His father was an accountant and his mother was a primary school teacher. He was educated in local Catholic schools and entered seminary in 1923.
He was ordained a priest in 1931, with direct authorization of the Holy See over his premature age. Câmara became auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro in 1952. During his first years as a priest he was a supporter of the far-right organization Integralismo, an ideological choice that he later rejected. He also founded two social organizations: the Ceará Legion of Work, in 1931, and the Women Workers' Catholic Union, in 1933. In 1959, he was appointed archbishop of Olinda e Recife.
During his tenure, Câmara was informally called the 'Bishop of the slums' for his clear position on the side of the urban poor. With other clerics, he encouraged peasants to free themselves from their conventional fatalistic outlook by studying the gospels in small groups and proposing the search for social change from their readings. He was active in the formation of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference in 1952, and served as its first general secretary until 1964. In 1959 he founded Banco da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, a philanthropic organization to fight poverty and social injustice by facilitating the contraction of loans by poorer populations.
He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and played a significant role in drafting the Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World. On November 16, 1965, a few days before the Council ended, 40 bishops led by bishop Hélder Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, privileges, and worldly ostentation. They taught that "the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery". They called for openness "to all, no matter what their beliefs".
Under the guidance of archbishop Hélder Câmara, the Catholic church in Brazil became an outspoken critic of the 1964-85 military dictatorship and a powerful movement for social change. Câmara spoke out and wrote about the implications of using violence to repress rebellion resulting from poverty and injustice in other venues than Brazil. Traditionalist Catholics urged the military government to arrest Câmara for his support of land reform and Câmara's colleague, Father Antônio Henrique Pereira Neto, was murdered by unknown conservative forces.
A proponent of liberation theology, he was Archbishop of the Diocese of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985, during a period when the country had a series of military rulers. Liberation theology politicised the church's charitable work and brought criticisms that it was encouraging the armed revolutionary struggles that swept Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.
He published Spiral of Violence (1971), a short tract written when the United States was immersed in a still escalating Vietnam War. It is distinctive for linking structural injustice (Level 1 violence) with escalating rebellion (Level 2 violence) and repressive reaction (Level 3 violence). In it, Câmara called on the youth of the world to take steps to break the spiral, saying their elders became addicted to those escalating steps. By the early 21st century, this book had been out of print in the United Kingdom for about 20 years. A scanned version in English is available on the web at the link given below.
He died, aged 90, in Recife.
Câmara had some controversial views, endorsing the position of the Orthodox church that spouses who were abandoned should be allowed to remarry within the Church. He criticized Pope Paul VI's removal of artificial contraception from the purview of Vatican II as "a mistake" meant to "torture spouses, to disturb peace of many homes", "a new condemnation of Galileo", "the death of the Council" and "the practical denial of collegiality". However, by Humanae Vitae, he had changed his mind about contraception, being the first person to telegram the Vatican's Secretariat of State praising the controversial encyclical.
In his famous interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, he also stated that, despite his support for non-violence, he didn't oppose violent tactics: "And I respect a lot priests with rifles on their shoulders; I never said that to use weapons against an oppressor is immoral or anti-Christian. But that's not my choice, not my road, not my way to apply the Gospels".
Câmara identified himself as a socialist and not as a marxist, and while disagreeing with marxism, had marxist sympathies. In the Oriana Fallaci interview he stated, "My socialism is special, its a socialism that respects the human person and goes back to the Gospels. My socialism it is justice." He said, concerning Marx, that while he disagreed with his conclusions, he agreed with his analysis of the capitalist society.In 1973, Câmara was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). His candidacy was however undermined by two conservative members (Sjur Lindebrække and Bernt Ingvaldsen) of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who cooperated with the Brazilian ambassador in Oslo as the military dictatorship in Brazil was vehemently against him receiving the Nobel peace prize.
In 1975, he was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award, initiated by the Catholic Interracial Council of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth".
In 2015, the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints granted its nihil obstat, authorizing the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife to open the beatification and canonization process for Câmara.