SÃO PAULO – A conference to be given in mid-June by a famed liberation theology priest in a school in the city of Caxias do Sul, in southern Brazil, had to be moved to another venue after dozens of parents of students promoted an online petition to repudiate it.

A group of 20 popular movements, Catholic social pastoral ministries, and labor unions had invited Dominican Father Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, better known by his pen name Frei (“Friar” in Portuguese) Betto, to talk about different kinds of hunger currently existing in Brazil.

Frei Betto, a long-time left-wing activist who fought against the Military dictatorship (1964-1985) in the South American country and was a special advisor to President Luiz Inácio da Silva during his first tenure (2003-2006), was scheduled to give his lecture on June 13 at Colégio São José, a private school ran by the Sisters of Saint Joseph since 1901.

On June 11, however, a group of parents of São José’s students, headed by Neila Gasperin, launched an online petition demanding the event to be canceled. The presentation text said that “Frei Betto is an adherent of liberation theology and a militant of pastoral and social programs.”

“He also authored several books and articles […] that are totally contrary to the values that we believe that are important and essential in the education of our children,” the text read, mentioning a brochure about the LGBT+ community.

“We, as parents and family members, feel totally uncomfortable with the gap between our educational interests and such a meeting to be held in a place that we have chosen as our children’s second home,” the text said.

The petition was signed by 2,921 supporters. Many of them published their comments about Frei Betto, calling him a “Communist” and repeating former President Jair Bolsonaro’s slogan, “God, Nation, and Family.”

Gasperin declined to comment on the petition.

In light of the campaign, the school decided to cancel the conference. Organizers moved it to the University of Caxias do Sul and it occurred on the same date. According to Marisa Formolo, one of the activists involved in the event, 600 people attended the lecture.

“It was a success. Many people were touched by Frei Betto’s ideas and felt energized by his calling to a Gospel-based social commitment,” described Formolo, a member of Lula’s Workers’ Party who has been a State legislator and Caxias do Sul’s vice mayor.

Formolo said that the organizers of the event were inspired by Frei Betto’s writings about the “hunger for bread” and the “hunger for beauty” and asked him to discuss “Christ’s struggle against injustice and to create hope.”

“That is a kind of understanding of the Gospel that shows that faith and concrete action are not separated,” she said.

Liberation theology has inspired a great proportion of Brazilian clergy since the 1970s, and an estimated 80,000 base ecclesial communities of a generally progressive character have existed in the nation during the peak of the movement.

Nonetheless, liberation theology-inspired movements are not exactly popular among many in Caxias do Sul nowadays.

More than 66 percent of the city’s 520,000 inhabitants voted for Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election, while in the country as a whole he obtained 49 percent support. Formolo said the local parishes are hugely divided for political reasons, more than seven months after Lula’s electoral victory.

At the same time, Frei Betto has been a lightning rod for decades. A vocal supporter of leftist politicians, he even was friends with Fidel Castro and wrote a book about the Cuban leader’s relations with religiousness.

Castro famously said about him: “He hasn’t made it yet, but if anyone can make a believer out of me, it’s Frei Betto.”

More recently, Frei Betto wrote a brochure about sexual orientation and gender, criticizing homophobia and misogyny and arguing that members of the LGBT+ community must have their dignity respected.

Colégio São José stated that 300 parents and family members of students created a WhatsApp group after they heard about Frei Betto’s conference and decided to launch an online petition.

“About 50 of them came in person to the school and expressed their stance in a very civil manner. The lecture was not canceled, given that it was not up to the school to do that, but the board decided to attend the [families’] request and canceled the agreement for the use of the school premises,” a press officer told Crux.

Marisa Formolo affirmed that Colégio São José has been a traditional space for civic gatherings in the city, with several meetings of popular and Church movements taking place in the school over the years.

In the past, she said, the same group of organizations invited theologian Leonardo Boff for a conference, and there was no controversy about it.

“Frei Betto’s audience was not meant to be the students, but the members of our social movements. Those parents just cannot see the truth, their premises are entirely false,” she said.

Formolo lamented the school’s stance, although she said that it was a decision taken by the principal and not by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who “are sad about those events.”

“Those families wanted to censor our activity,” she said.

Frei Betto emphasized that there is a great divide in the Brazilian Church nowadays, with a “progressive segment and a conservative one that includes far-right clusters, people who do not support the pope and openly criticize him.”

About the parents who rejected his presence in Colégio São José, Frei Betto said he hopes “they will educate their children in the values of anti-racism, defense of gay people, combat to misogyny, and to welcome refugees and engage in extinguishing the causes of poverty and misery.”