6.2.2 Base ecclesial communities and Freire on ‘conscientization’

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Unit 6 Contents



Base ecclesial communities

During the decade before the Medellin conference, a novel expression of local church life had emerged in Latin America, partly as a response to a lack of priests.  Beginning in Brazil, some bishops began programmes to train local working people to lead other church members in prayer, Scripture-reading and related activities. While parishes were usually large, the new groups that brought people together in that way were smaller than parish congregations. They came to be called, in Portuguese, Communidades Eclesiales de Base, ‘church communities of the base’.  By the late 1960s, there were thousands of such communities across Brazil, and Medellin helped to inspire their growth in other countries.

That term is often translated in English as ‘base ecclesial communities’, BECs for short, and I shall use this here.

Base ecclesial communities came to be a main location where liberation theology was ‘done’.  We shall see shortly what ‘doing liberation theology’ means, but it will be helpful to learn first about a figure whose work was one inspiration for the movement.

Paulo Freire and ‘conscientization’

In the 1950s and 1960s most poor people in Latin America were illiterate, and enabling literacy was widely seen as a vital means of assisting them to overcome poverty.  You might recall that this was affirmed in PP:

[E]conomic growth depends in the very first place upon social progress: thus basic education is the primary object of any plan of development… To be able to read and write, to acquire a professional formation, means to recover confidence in oneself and to discover that one can progress along with the others… [L]iteracy is “a fundamental factor of social integration, as well as of personal enrichment, and for society it is a privileged instrument of economic progress and of development”. (PP #35, italics added, quoting an address by Pope Paul VI to UNESCO in 1965)

By the time PP was issued, a Brazilian educationist who focused on basic literacy, Paulo Freire, was already well known in Latin America. Together with his wife Elza, Freire had been involved in Brazil’s Catholic Action Movement in the 1940s and he had encountered the writing of Jacques Maritain among others.  While he later “rejected the social conservatism characteristic of the institutional church”,1 his work on basic education had striking resemblances to, and probably drew on, Cardijn’s ‘see, judge, act’ method.  He referred to his own approach as ‘naming, reflection, action’.2

Freire devised what proved to be an astonishingly effective way of teaching people to read. Rather than using a standard textbook approach that followed a pre-set procedure for everyone regardless of local context, his team would visit a community first and identify a small set of words that both were especially meaningful for people in that specific time and place, given the issues and struggles they faced, and also had syllables and sounds that made them a good basis for learning other words. He called these ‘generative words’. Using this method his team could teach adults to read the newspaper in about five weeks. At the same time this gave people the capacity to begin to see or name their own social context, and thereby to analyse why things were as they were – to judge or reflect on it.  They could ask questions about a new road or factory, for example, such as,

*  ‘Who made the decisions about this?’

*  ‘Who will and won’t benefit from this?’

*  ‘How will this change this community?’

Then they could act to begin to improve things.  Freire referred to the learning process that took place as ‘conscientization’ or, in a more accessible English term, ‘consciousness-raising’.  This meant, in turn, that people “moved from being ‘objects’ to ‘subjects’ who no longer passively and fatalistically accepted life but now… wanted to help shape life”.3

In this approach, education was a matter of “problem solving”, not one of storing up or “banking” new information, as he put it.  It could be liberating, therefore – a means of enabling people, not only to name and reflect, but also to act to change their circumstances for the better.  As such, Freire’s approach proved to be one main influence on emerging liberation theology.

It you would like to learn more about Paulo Freire, here is a reading and a short slide show:


Optional reading (5pp and 6 minutes)

Roberta Clare, ‘Catholic Educators: Paulo Freire’

Rey Ty, YouTube clip: ‘Paulo Freire: The Banking Method vs. Problem-Solving Education’


By the early 1960s, Freire’s work was strongly supported by Brazil’s government and he became director of its National Literacy Programme. His work in the impoverished north-east of Brazil was partly funded by the United States’s aid agency (USAID).  However, precisely because of the capacity of his method to enable poor people to begin to act together to address questions about their own poverty, Freire’s work came to be seen as potentially subversive, even revolutionary.  In 1964, fear of socialism among some in Brazilian political and military elites led to a coup and the beginning of 20 years of military dictatorship.  US funding for Freire’s work stopped.  He was imprisoned by the new regime and then fled to Chile where he was granted political asylum.4 He continued his work there and wrote what quickly became a famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (published in Portuguese in 1968 and in English translation in 1970).



Can you see how Freire’s approach could be used, not only for learning to read and write, but in other forms of education?

I have outlined two factors that influenced liberation theology: the formation of base ecclesial communities, and Freire’s method of education.

Can you see how base communities and Freire’s method can be brought together?




End of 6.2.2

Go to 6.2.3 Gustavo Gutiérrez

Module B outline

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  1. Roberta Clare, ‘Catholic Educators: Paulo Freire’ (no date), at http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/catholic/paulo_freire/ (accessed 23 June 2015). 

  2. For ‘naming, reflection, action’, see e.g. Freire, Education: The Practice of Freedom (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative, 1976), and The Politics of Education (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1985).  Stefan Gigacz points to Freire having drawn closely on ‘see, judge, act’; he reports that Freire himself, speaking about Cardijn’s Young Christian Worker movement, said, “Everything I know came from the YCW and Catholic Action” (see ‘Paolo Freire, the YCW and Cardijn’, Cardijn Research (website), 26 Aug. 2012 at http://cardijnresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/paolo-freire-ycw-and-cardijn.html, accessed 23 June 2015). 

  3. Marvin Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movements (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), p. 261. 

  4. For the details here, see Clare, ‘Paulo Freire’, cited above; Diana Coben, Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire and the Politics of Adult Education (London, Routledge, 1988), pp. 59-62; Keith Watson, Education in the Third World (London: Routledge, 1982), p. 154. 

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