Paulo Evaristo Arns

The Brazilian religious leader Paulo Evaristo Arns (1921–2016) was Archbishop of São Paulo from 1970 to 1998, and a cardinal in the Catholic Church from 1973 until his death. A proponent of what was known as liberation theology, Arns was a voice for Brazil's poor and a defender of human rights in the face of restrictions imposed by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for much of his career.

Brazilian religious leader Paulo Evaristo Arns completely overturned the orientation of the Catholic Church in São Paulo during his tenure as a cardinal, selling off the Archbishop's luxurious mansion and devoting the proceeds to community centers and to building the church's presence in impoverished areas. Arns's efforts had ramifications in Brazilian politics, increasing the political pressure that brought the military dictatorship to an end in 1985 as well as exerting an influence on the progressive movements that were to become an increasing force in the Brazilian government. Arns had a complex relationship with the Catholic hierarchy in Rome, however. Although he cultivated close relationships with several popes, as the Vatican clamped down on liberation theology, the São Paul Archdiocese was reorganized in such a way as to minimize his power and influence.

Worked in Brazilian Slums

Arns was born on September 14, 1921, in Forquilhinha, Brazil, in the state of Santa Catarina in the Brazilian south. He was one of 13 children born to German immigrants Gabriel and Helena Arns, and German was his first language. Three of his sisters became nuns, and one brother a priest. Another sister, Zilda Arns Neumann, was a noted aid worker who died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Arns attended Franciscan schools in Brazil and was ordained as a priest in 1945. His first ministry was in the city of Petrópolis, where he taught courses in theology at the local university but also ministered to the poor in the city's seven favelas, or hillside slums. “I spent three days a week in these favelas, and these seven favelas were my school,” Arns recalled to Francis McDonagh in the National Catholic Reporter.

After teaching at other universities and seminaries, and editing a monthly Catholic journal, Arns was ordained as auxiliary bishop in the São Paulo archdiocese by Pope Paul VI in 1966, and the pope named him archbishop there in 1970. Three years later, when Paul VI elevated Arns to the rank of cardinal, his response was to sell the luxurious traditional residence of the São Paulo archbishop and use the proceeds to finance church projects in the city's extensive slums, an enterprise he called Operacção Periferia, or Operation Periphery. “How could the archbishop live in a place if his most faithful and dedicated collaborators lack a minimum of comfort and of the resources indispensable to carry on their work?,” he asked, according to National Catholic Reporter contributor Lise Alves.

Paulo Evaristo Arns

Doug Griffin/Getty Images

Organized Neighborhood Church Units

Operation Periphery involved the creation of new parishes—43 came into existence during the period when Arns was archbishop—and the building of more than 1,200 community centers. At its center were about 2,000 comunidades eclesias de base, ecclesiastical base communities, known as CEBs by their Portuguese initials. The CEBs were small neighborhood Catholic groups that had a social as well as a religious function. They organized aid for the unemployed among the lower classes, who suffered despite the prosperity Brazil's military dictatorship achieved for the affluent and well connected.

Such activities brought Arns into conflict with Brazil's military leaders, who had seized power in 1964 and retained control until the restoration of civilian government in 1985. The period of his leadership coincided with the worst abuses of the dictatorship. The CEBs formed nuclei of popular resistance to the dictatorship, and Arns directly resisted the military in various ways, such as visiting political prisoners and speaking out against the killings of union leaders and journalists. In one famous incident in 1979, he went to a morgue to retrieve the body of labor leader Santo Dias da Silva, who had been killed by military police. Arns faced down the police on the scene. “We went in, and Cardinal Arns looked at the bullet holes on Santo's body,” lawyer Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh recalled, according to the New York Times. “He pointed his finger at the policemen and said, ‘Look what you did!’ And all the officers lowered their heads in shame.”

In 1982, when Pope John Paul II visited Brazil, military officials offered to transport him in a helicopter, but Arns, who had met the pontiff at the airport, told him that if he went with the military, he would go alone. (The pope stayed with Arns.) More generally, Arns favored the outlook of liberation theology, which held that the Catholic Church should advocate for the poor. “In our country, 2 percent of the population has more wealth than the other 98 percent. This is a scandal,” he once observed in a quote reported by the London Guardian. Acting to correct this disparity, he fostered the establishment of AIDS prevention clinics and of ministries to the homeless and to criminals housed in São Paulo's prisons. He also became legendary for his ability to communicate with audiences ranging from slum street dwellers to heads of state.

Policies Frustrated by Church Hierarchy

As Arns readily admitted, according to Alves, conservative critics regarded his prison ministry as “defense of bandits, not defense of human rights.” After telling the poor in Recife that they should eat meat on the fasting day of Ash Wednesday if it was available, he received a substantial amount of “hate mail.” After years of unease with regard to Arns's policies, conservative Catholics in Rome, led by Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), took steps to reduce the cardinal's influence. The Archdiocese of São Paulo was split into five dioceses, leaving Arns as archbishop of only the central part, and of only seven million people instead of 16 million. Arns criticized the move for its effect of separating rich and poor Catholics.

In his later years, Arns received more than 40 awards. Especially after the dissolution of Brazil's military dictatorship, a development Arns was credited with helping to foster, he was ranked as one of his country's most influential individuals. Between 1979 and 1985 he was involved with a documentary project called Brazil Nunca Mais (“Brazil: Never Again”), which recorded episodes of torture carried out by the government.

Arns also helped to found a 1983 voting rights movement that was crucial in bringing about the restoration of democracy to the country. The New York Times named Arns among 50 individuals who make the world better, and the United Nations' UNHCR refugee agency cited him for his work on behalf of human rights. In 1994 Arns also was awarded Japan's Niwano Peace Prize.

Arns remained in the public eye after his retirement, not hesitating to weigh in with controversial opinions. He criticized the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, arguing that, as quoted by the National Catholic Reporter, “You don't know who did it. It's a war against a nation when one man or two or three or ten are responsible.”

Turning from the political to the spiritual, Arns bucked the Catholic establishment by backing the abolition of rules requiring celibacy of priests. He also supported the ordination of female priests, telling Dennis Coday of the National Catholic Reporter that “I am in favor of the promotion of women and always defended their ordination by the Catholic church. My mother raised 21 children, 13 of her own and eight by adoption, and all of them accomplished what they set out to do. How can I accept that women be treated as less than men?” Arns died in São Paulo on December 14, 2016, after suffering complications from pneumonia.


National Catholic Reporter, July 26, 1996, Francis McDonagh, “Brazil's Arns Embodies Vatican II Church,” p. 12; October 11, 1996, Pamela Schaeffer, “Cardinal Arns Says Pope Gives His Curia Free Rein,” p. 2; April 5, 2002, “Brazil Cardinal Recalls Battles with Curia,” p. 15; March 4, 2005, Dennis Coday, “The Pope of the Divided Heart,” p. 6; December 30, 2016, Lise Alves, “Human Rights Champion Cardinal Arns Dies at 95,” p. 14.

New York Times, December 20, 2016, Richard Sandomir, “Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns Dies at 95; Fought Torture,” p. A20.


Guardian (London, England), December 16, 2016, (December 16, 2016), “Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns Obituary.”□

(MLA 8th Edition)