To understand our battles over critical race theory and liberation theology, look to Brazil’s fight over Paulo Freire’s legacy

Brazil’s celebration in September of the centennial of Paulo Freire (1921-1997), the educator and philosopher behind Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was overshadowed by the nation’s ongoing political polarization. The same week of the Freire centenary, President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration was forbidden by a judge’s ruling to attack Freire’s legacy, calling the president’s various comments and institutional moves against Freire an abuse of the freedom of expression. The court decision may shut down some of Mr. Bolsonaro’s semi-official campaign against Freire—there were apparently plans even to remove his statue from outside the Ministry of Education—but the war between his admirers and his critics in Brazil remains intense on social media.

While progressives honored the legacy of the man who opened a new path in the relationship between teachers and students—in conceptual breakthroughs that had broad consequences in different areas of knowledge—conservatives, especially among Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters, disseminated messages of hate against Freire, blaming him for the Brazilian education system’s failures and deriding him as a communist.

A Bolsonaro campaign against the Freire legacy

Since the presidential campaign in 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro has attacked Freire and even promised to “purge his ideology” from public education in Brazil, and members of his alliance in Congress have continually targeted Freire’s reputation as Brazil’s patron of education.

Freire’s ideas were not only influential in the field of education but also in the Latin American liberation theology movement.

After the court ruling prohibiting Mr. Bolsonaro’s institutional attacks on Freire, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, questioned the decision’s fairness.

“The country’s education [system] is terrible, and one can’t criticize the patron of that mess? This is not justice; this is sick militancy,” he said on his Twitter account.

The divide between Freire’s critics and supporters in Brazil has implications for the church. Freire’s ideas were not only influential in the field of education but also in the Latin American liberation theology movement. A pious Christian who worked in the World Council of Churches, Freire is mentioned in several of the most relevant works of theologians like the Peruvian-born Gustavo Gutiérrez and the Brazilian-born Leonardo Boff.

One of the aspects of Freire’s thought that seems to enrage many conservatives is his emphasis on critical thinking, a methodology that encourages students to question what is superficially perceived as natural, true and unchangeable. In his problem-posing pedagogical approach, explained James Kyrilo, an education professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on Freire’s ideas, “learners explore and problematize existential happenings” and reach through dialogue “critical awareness regarding the political nature of education and its intersection with the cultural, social and religious milieu.”

“Paulo Freire is considered the ‘father’ of what is known as critical pedagogy,” he said, describing it as “an approach to education that is contextually attentive, realizing the political nature of education as it seeks to call out disparities, inequities, inequalities and injustice in all its forms, while simultaneously specifying ways to cultivate the humanization of humanity.”

Freire’s pedagogical ideas inspired many popular movements in Brazil, especially in rural villages and in poor communities on the outskirts of large cities. They became a central part of the Bishops’ Conference’s Movement of Base Education (known by the Portuguese abbreviation M.E.B.), created at the beginning of the 1960s in order to teach rural and urban workers to read and write—at the same time raising awareness among them of their civil rights.

Freire’s pedagogical ideas inspired many popular movements in Brazil, especially in rural villages and in poor communities on the outskirts of large cities.

At that time, illiterate people were not allowed to vote and were mostly disconnected from the political process in Brazil. Their illiteracy helped perpetuate labor exploitation and social marginalization. Freire developed a revolutionary way of teaching literacy in 40 hours, connecting the new skills of reading and writing with a broader perception of social reality.

A liberating force outside education

Many of the groups inspired by Freire were influential in community struggles for land, for basic infrastructure—like sanitation and public lights—in slums and for political rights repressed during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). Often those movements combined with the church’s base ecclesial communities at that time being inspired by liberation theology.

To a great extent, those movements contributed to the creation of the Workers’ Party in 1980. Freire himself was a founding member and worked as São Paulo’s secretary of education in 1989, during Luiza Erundina’s term as mayor of São Paulo. His party involvement seems to be something that Brazil’s political right has never accepted.

As someone who stimulated learners to examine the roots of inequality, social injustice and oppression, Freire was accused of being a communist the same way as other Christian leaders of that time.

“Archbishop Hélder Câmara, of Recife and Olinda (1909-1999), a deeply prayerful man and a powerful voice for the poor, was also labeled a communist by the establishment,” Mr. Kyrilo recalled.

“With great ironic wit, Câmara famously responded to that charge, declaring, ‘When I feed the poor, I’m called a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist,” he added.

For Freire, comprehending written text must be preceded by comprehension of the world, something that is developed both in his pedagogy and in his Christian practice, according to Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, O.P., known as Frei [Friar] Betto in Brazil. A leading liberation theologian, Frei Betto pointed out that Paulo Freire and Liberation Theology have “the same sources.”

Many of the groups inspired by Freire were influential in community struggles for land, for basic infrastructure in slums and for political rights repressed during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

“One of his thought’s foundations is the see/judge/act method, employed by the Catholic Action,” a movement inspired by the Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, he told America.

Catholic Action members, still active in Latin America and elsewhere, were among the founders of several Christian social organizations that influenced the formation of the liberation theology movement in Latin America. Their main goal was to combine faith and social action in transformative ways.

“In their meetings, the activists would first analyze the current social reality (“see”); then they would discern [appropriate ways of acting] (“judge”); and finally, they would establish their strategy of [sociopolitical] intervention (“act”),” Frei Betto explained.

Liberation theologians reflect on the contents of Christian faith from the perspective of social oppression, he said. “This is a process that begins with the analysis of the reality in which people live, exactly how Freire suggested,” Frei Betto pointed out.

Learning social literacy

Paulo Freire’s emphasis on the poor is certainly another reason for the repudiation of his ideas by contemporary Brazilian conservatives. According to the Chilean-born Jorge Costadoat, S.J., the poor for Freire were a real historical subject—not just an object of policies or political intentions—a vision that is in tune with the changes in Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council and with the general idea of transforming life in Latin America.

Paulo Freire’s emphasis on the poor is certainly another reason for the repudiation of his ideas by contemporary Brazilian conservatives.

“Freire showed us that a written text should not be read as if it were saying the truth. Behind it there is always a world in conflict. So the reader not only has to learn how to read it, but also has to critically read it,” Father Costadoat, a researcher at the Manuel Larraín Theological Center, said.

The same process should happen when reading the Bible, he added. “The Bible must be read in community,” Father Coastadoat said. “The poor were its first readers,” and it is the role of theologians and Bible scholars to guide the poor in “reaching their own conclusions” about the meaning of Scripture. “This way, they may become the subjects of their own liberation.”

Such a methodology is a powerful tool to understand how the world works, educator Ascânio João Sedrez, a member of Brazil’s National Association of Catholic Education, told America.

“Working out of context is bad in any process of learning,” he said. “Education must not be based on the idea of an alleged sociopolitical neutrality,” something he believes is impossible— educators should take sides in social struggle.

Freire’s focus on dialogue, context and debate has been widely adopted by Brazilian educators, Mr. Sedrez pointed out. “And those ideas are surely applied even at top, elite schools, the ones that may be training the nation’s future social oppressors,” he added.

In Brazilian Catholic schools, Mr. Sedrez said, most teachers and members of religious organizations have had contact with Freire’s ideas and try to use them as tools in the building of institutions that work in accordance with the church’s social doctrine.

“But many times, the school’s managers are totally separated from that context. They tend to be conservatives and do not have much sympathy for Freire’s ideas,” he said.

“Freire showed us that a written text should not be read as if it were saying the truth. Behind it there is always a world in conflict.”

The current targeting of Freire by the far right has not directly diminished the application of his ideas in the concrete life of the schools, Mr. Sedrez said.

“Most families are only superficially conservative, and they are usually satisfied with a Catholic school if they can recognize in them the church’s symbols,” he said. “Potential problems only arise when critical debates take place during classes.”

In the United States, Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is widely known among teachers and administrators of Catholic schools, according to Hosffman Ospino, a theology and religious education professor at Boston College.

“Much of what we do in terms of critical theory and educational efforts associated with education that builds just societies and structures can trace some connection to Freire’s work on conscientization,” Dr. Ospino, who is a member of the National Catholic Education Association board of directors, said.

He argued that aspects of Freire’s thought may help to improve the learning and participatory skills of all U.S. students, Catholic and non-Catholic.

“Many people in our society are appallingly uncritical about the information they receive, believing almost every falsity and conspiracy theory they hear and read. Freirian pedagogy can be an antidote to this malady,” he said.

Freire’s educational theory can also empower people to assert their voices and challenge the status quo, especially when it is unjust and dehumanizing, Dr. Ospino suggested.

“Ideological polarization is causing havoc in our society and in our church. People do not listen, or think critically, or consider alternative options to their own thinking. Freirean pedagogy is an invitation to dialogue and negotiation, respecting differences,” he said.

A parallel U.S. campaign against critical race theory?

Mr. Kyrilo suggests that the current mischaracterization of Freire by the political right in Brazil has parallels with the campaign of the political right in the United States against critical race theory.

The current mischaracterization of Freire by the political right in Brazil has parallels with the campaign of the political right in the United States against critical race theory.

“C.R.T. recognizes that the notion of race is a socially constructed invention and realizes that the legacy of racism in the U.S. continues to institutionally manifest itself,” he said. “The C.R.T. effort, therefore, looks to unearth how racism socially and institutionally works in order to better understand how policies and practices need to change.”

“If one were to authentically explore the life and work of Paulo Freire and examine the meaning and intent of C.R.T., the collective effort is to ultimately foster a more just, righteous and loving world.”

In fact, the same way that Paulo Freire is being used as a scapegoat in Brazil, C.R.T. became a target of conservatives in the United States, said Rita Kohli, an education professor at the University of California in Riverside.

Despite the uproar that has been provoked against it, “I don’t believe that C.R.T. is much known and disseminated in the school system,” she told America. She suggests the campaign against C.R.T. is part of a broader effort against any sort of anti-racist education.

The current reaction to C.R.T., often from supporters of former President Donald Trump, is a kind of backlash to anti-racism protests across the country provoked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. There has not been enough time to evaluate the C.R.T.’s actual impact on U.S. education, but research on previous anti-racism programs indicate that they can be effective, according to Dr. Kohli.

“When the students discuss anti-racism at school, they usually start to question the school’s own system,” she said. “They form social justice clubs, debate the school’s policies on suspensions and even decide to ban the police from schools.”

Freire’s ideas, she said, are deeply rooted in anti-racist educational platforms. “Those are propositions that lead the students to interrogate the power structure,” Dr. Kohli said. “It is a way of using education to give a voice to the people.”

Freire’s ideas are deeply rooted in anti-racist educational platforms.

Dr. Ospino noted that much could be improved in C.R.T., given that it is not a finished project, but its successes so far have been impressive.

“It has forced us…to confront the injustices of racism and how unjust systems and structures in our society have created conditions to privilege some people and exact pain upon others, using the power of the law, politics and even religion,” he said.

“Just as Freire taught peasants how to read and write so they could understand what was happening in their contexts,” Dr. Ospino said, “our society needs to learn and write the new grammars that can help us to examine our structures and to talk about the social constructs associated with racism.”