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Pope Benedict arrives in Brazil tomorrow for a five-day visit. He'll preside over an outdoor mass for youth, canonize Brazil's first homegrown saint, and open the Latin American and Caribbean Bishop's Conference. The pontiff's attitude towards activism in the Roman Catholic clergy will also be scrutinized.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on why.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Pope Benedict's first foray into Latin America will undoubtedly remind him of the two-decade-old drama here in which he played the protagonist. Then as Cardinal Ratzinger, the defender of the doctor of the faith, he rebuked Brazil's leading liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. Ratzinger said his teachings conflated Christ's mission with Marxism, draining Jesus of his unique divinity as the Son of God. He silenced Boff for a year.

When the church went after the ordained Franciscan a second time several years later, Boff told his cardinal:

Mr. LEONARDO BOFF (Liberation Theologian, Brazil): (Through translator) The first time, I accepted punishment out of humility. Now, it is humiliation. That's a sin, and I won't do it.

McCARTHY: Boff quit the priesthood, but remained a Catholic, pressing for what the 63-year-old theologian and writer calls the central tenant of liberation theology.

Mr. BOFF: (Through translator) The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it's justice. And the objective of liberation theology is to create a more just society, not necessarily a wealthier one. And the great question is, how do we do this?

McCARTHY: In Brazil, Catholic bishops are doing this with public acts. They staged hunger strikes to stop dam projects that would harm the rural poor. They broker deals with banks to build housing for the homeless.

(Soundbite of radio announcement)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Portuguese)

McCARTHY: And Catholic priests are using the airwaves to denounce the growing footprint of agro-business that has cut down the Amazon rainforest to make way for crops such as soy. Nowhere is the church's struggle for social justice as active or defiant as the Amazon.

(Soundbite of radio announcement)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Portuguese)

McCARTHY: Station manager Father Edilberto Moro Sena(ph) hosts rural radios, Friday morning debates from his corner studio in the Amazon port city of Santarem. Father Sena says his mission is to stir public action against what he lists as four enemies: logging, mining, cattle ranching, and soy farming. This show takes on hydroelectric dams that could flood parts of the Amazon. One hundred four thousand square miles of trees have been felled in the state of Para, the most deforested in the Amazon, says the government.

Father Sena refuses to air ads of businesses he says trample the environment, a decision that drains the station of cash, but not this cleric of his zeal.

Father EDILBERTO SENA (Station Manager, Amazon): Look, look, look, look. That's timber. That's the second one pass by us.

McCARTHY: Counting trucks laden with logs, the crusading cleric takes visitors on a tour over the roads filled with potholes past the green pastures of new soy and rice. In stream of consciousness, the priest inveigh against the presence on foreign firms such as agro-giant Cargill, decries capitalism, and extols Christ as a subversive and faulty status quo.

Father SENA: Morality in Jesus' mind means social morality, solidarity, responsibility, ethics. That is morality. And you cannot go to communion on Sunday, and on Monday you destroy the forest. It's against the law of God. I am trying to save Amazonia for 23 million people that live here.

McCARTHY: Father, let me ask you about that. The people on the other side argue - we are trying to do that by virtue of developing this place. Is there an argument to be made that the Cargills of this world do have a place here.

Father SENA: Human development means education, food, house, and hope of the future. Where is the growth? Where is the development? And he wants me to be quiet?

McCARTHY: Father Sena's outspoken style inspires many in the Catholic laity who organized this recent symposium on the threats to the rainforest.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: Candlelit prayers and hymns about justice opened the conference that draws many from civil society's environmental groups. Even the federal prosecutor has a prominent place here. He was a supporter of Dorothy Stang, the American nun who defended the land rights of the indigenous people of Para and paid with her life two years ago.

The precise number of adherents to church activism of the sort found in this hall on a sweltering Friday night is hard to come by, but theologian Leonardo Boff says one million Bible circles in the world's largest Catholic country regularly meet to discuss the Scriptures from the vantage points of liberation theology. Conference organizer Jane Sousa da Silva says in disputes with the government over land use and development, the church has no equal.

Ms. JANE SOUSA DA SILVA (Organizer, Latin Bishops Conference): (Through translator) Perhaps the church will increase its prominence because we need to strengthen the social movement struggling against the government. Few movements and few organizations confront the government the way the church does.

(Soundbite of clanking dishes, crowd chatter)

McCARTHY: Bishop Carlos doesn't label himself a liberation theologian, but with the 25 seminarians who share his living space and crowd his kitchen, he hurls himself into the problems of the poor in the new diocese he administers, 500 miles to the east of Satere.

Bishop Carlos wasn't at the job long before he was rescuing some 500 squatters after police evicted them from land on the outskirts of the capital, Fort Balane. The bishop with a nose for business housed these new homeless in the shell of a cathedral under construction until he invited the superintendent of the state bank to see what misery looked like.

Bishop CARLOS: (Through translator) When she saw that situation, she said what do you want? You don't just sit around and wait for things to happen. The challenge compels us to find solutions, not just theories.

McCARTHY: Bishop Carlos' solution? A new home for each of the 90 families paid for by the state bank. He gives a tour.

Bishop CARLOS: (Portuguese spoken)

McCARTHY: So we got four rooms here. We got a bathroom, a bedroom, a kitchen, a sala. You say it's not grand, but we've got good floors. When you treat the last as being first, the bishop says, you rescue their dignity and much more, according to new homeowner Anderson Jamaki(ph).

Mr. ANDERSON JAMAKI (New Homeowner): (Portuguese spoken)

McCARTHY: Without the assistance of Bishop Carlos, none of this would have happened. Without him, there wouldn't be dreams, he says. Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School says liberation theology is alive and well in the Brazilian Catholic Church, and there is only a limited amount that Rome can do about it.

Professor HARVEY COX (Divinity, Harvard Divinity School): There is this independent streak in the Brazilian church, including the hierarchy. And it's an independent streak which often takes the form of deep interest and commitment for important issues of social justice. Silencing people doesn't really do much, doesn't really quell the kind of currents that you might like to quell.

McCARTHY: The Vatican recently censured Salvadoran Bishop and liberation theologian Jon Sabrino, calling his writings erroneous or dangerous. Over the next five days, Pope Benedict will have ample opportunity to hear how his church in Latin America is carrying out its mission. But Leonardo Boff, the theologian the Pope once silenced, says don't expect the Brazilian bishops to be too forthcoming.

Mr. BOFF: (Through translator) The bishops never criticized the Pope. They always say he's wonderful. He is for social justice and the poor. Then they can simultaneously go ahead and do what needs to be done in Brazil. It's the Brazilian way.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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