Base Ecclesial Communities

The OCR DCT specification says that you need to know about Base Communities, their organisation, purpose and theology and the relationship between the CEBs and the mainstream Church.

What are CEBs?

Base Ecclesial Communities - BECs (or 'Communicado Ecclesia de Base' CEBs) are a type of church within the Church.  They are small groups of Christians who meet together to worship.

History of CEBs:

CEBs developed over time in response to the specific needs in Latin America and evolved organically over time.  

In The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology Andrew Dawson divides the history of CEBs into four main periods.

Pre 1962:

  • The Roman Catholic Church structure requires priests to perform sacraments like Mass (communion) and Baptism and hear confessions.
  • A shortage of priests meant that one priest was often responsible for many parishes would go for weeks, sometimes months without seeing a priest.
  • As a temporary measure 'lay catechists' (non-ordained teachers) were trained to lead a 'priest-less mass'.  These leaders could distribute pre-consecrated bread and wine and read pre-prepared material.  In 1954 the first 372 lay catechists were trained.
  • This was seen as a temporary measure and was known as the Rossi Experiment.

Lay catechists could be 'an efficient and practical means of defending the faith'

However, 'the popular catechists reads and does not speak.  He is a reader, not a preacher nor an improvisor.'

Rossi (quoted in Dawson).


Between 1962-1965 bishops from across the world met at a conference known as the second Vatican Council.  They discussed a huge range of topics relating to the role of the Church in the modern world and debated methods of renewing the Catholic faith.  Some of these topics were particularly relevant for the development of liberation theology.  For example, at Vatican II it was agreed.

  • The laity should have greater involvement in the Church.
  • The Church must be more accessible.
  • The Church should be actively concerned in social issues.

'Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.'

'...they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions...'

This gave the lay catechists and CEBs of Latin America a certain degree of formal recognition.


Political unrest during this period led to an increasing reliance on CEBs as a stable organisation within a turbulent society.  In 1964 a military coup had overthrown President Joao Goulart and established an undemocratic nationalistic military government.  They directed rapid economic growth in some sectors which benefited the richest 10% of the society but which did nothing at all to help the poor masses.  The military government opposed all opposition (especially any hints of communism), silenced dissenters and 'disappeared' politically vocal opponents.  

  • CEBs provided an opportunity for people to engage in practical action. They began to increasingly focus on social problems and to integrate concern with spiritual well-being and physical well-being.
  • CEBs became more independent from the mainstream Catholic Church.
  • Theologians like Boff, Gutierrez and Sobrino embraced the CEB as a a true reflection of how the Church should function.


During the 1970s the CEBs had their first national meeting.  The theological ideas and methods used in CEBs were beginning to gain official recognition through the published work of liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff.  In 1985 the military government in Brazil was ended and democracy restored.  However, poverty and inequality remained and CEBs continued to combine traditional Christian concern about soul with more practical concerns about body.

CEB style groups have also been founded in other areas of the world, notably in the Philippines where the CEB model has proved very popular.

Organisation, purpose and theology:

CEBs were not intended to be totally independent forms of Church.  They function more as a church within a Church.  They see themselves as being within the body of the Roman Catholic Church and one parish church might have more than one CEB attached to it.  

The number of people in a CEB can vary, but in order for it to function as an effective community it must be relatively small (10-50 people).

The key differences between CEBs and other forms of Church community are:

  • The structure (organisation)
  • The focus on social concerns (purpose)
  • The way of reading the bible (theology)


In order to consider what was distinctive about CEBs one must first consider the structure of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.

  • The Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure.  At the top is the Pope, God's chosen representative on earth.  Below the Pope are the Bishops and below them the Priests.  The Catholic Church teaches that priests and bishops have authority because the apostolic authority of Jesus' original disciples has been passed down by the process of apostolic succession.  The priest is viewed as a mediator between God and man.  As mediator the priest presents the peoples' prayers to God and represents God to the people.  
  • Within the Catholic Church sacraments are believed to be a way of receiving God's grace.  The sacraments (Mass, Communion, Baptism, Confession, Marriage, Ordination, Last Rites) must be performed by a priest because a sacrament is 'an outward sign of an inward grace'.  That is to say it is something God does and therefore it is essential to have an ordained priest to stand in for God.  
  • It could be said that the laity are passive consumers of religion within the traditional Church structure. They receive their religion from the priest and they receive their theology from the Churches professional theologians. Traditionally Catholic children have been taught to recite their catechism which is a set of learned responses to specific questions.  In this way the Church has controlled how the Christian message is to be interpreted.

Unlike the mainstream Church, CEBs did not have a hierarchical structure.  In many CEBs - at least initially - the priest would often be absent and the lay catechist would lead proceedings.  Although in the beginning the lay teacher was supposed to be a 'reader' rather than an innovator as time went on lay catechists increasingly began to interpret things for themselves and encourage other members of the group to do likewise.  The lay catechist would be a local person often chosen for their natural leadership skills and for their commitment to the community.  

CEBs reflected the idea that a 'church' is a community of people who meet together to worship God and to do his will.  It does not need an official hierarchical structure and nor does it need people to be specifically ordained to fulfil a priestly role.  This can be described as a functional view of the church (i.e. a church is something that functions as a church).  There is some biblical backing for this view.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus suggests that all that is needed is for people to meet together in his name.  

'For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.'

(Matthew 18:20)

In his letter to the Church in Corinth Paul sets out some principles for orderly worship that seem to imply that anyone could take a lead role in worship by praying or prophesying.  He describes these things as 'gifts of the Spirit' (i.e. the Holy Spirit).  It seems that in the Church at Corinth worship was not lead by an official priest but consisted of lots of different people contributing.

'What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. f anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

(1 Corinthians 14:26-32)

You could also say that CEBs reflect the Marxist principle of 'owning the means of production'.

In some respects BECs reflect a view of church that has is more similar to non-conformist Protestant Churches (who have a minister rather than a 'priest') than traditional Roman Catholic views.  However, it is important to remember that they were not entirely independent, but viewed themselves as groups within the Roman Catholic Church (although this did not prevent them from criticising the mainstream Church).


As we have seen, CEBs began as an emergency measure to cope with the shortage of priests by providing communities with a way of worshipping without a priest.  However, as time went on the purpose shifted.

Leonardo Boff had criticised the established church for being in a state of 'institutional fossilisation'.  He felt that it had become immovable, set in stone and unable to respond to the needs of the people.  As the Latin American Bishops had set out at Medellin, the burning need for people in Latin America was social justice and a type of Christianity that provided practical help rather than esoteric learning.

'The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keep the majority of our people in dismal poverty.'

'We believe that the Latin American Episcopate cannot avoid assuming very concrete responsibility; because to create a just social order is an eminently Christian task.'

Medellin Document

Gustavo Gutierrez summarised the role of liberation theology thus:

'The theology of Liberation attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of the (Christian) faith based on the commitment to abolish injustice and build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of commitment, by active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against their oppressors.'

CEBs came to be the place where this social concern could be put into practice. The three mediations (see, judge, act) became the guiding principles of many CEBs.  For many liberation theologians orthopraxis (right action) was much more important than orthodoxy (right belief).

'BECs were praxis of mission driven...The starting point was not "what is the nature of the true church" but "what is the mission of the true church"...The BECs were an example of a small group within the wider church for whom mission was the primary purpose of their existence.'

Dr Paul Davis Base ecclesial communities in contemporary perspective.

Liberation theologians would argue that the emphasis on social action follows Jesus' teaching.  He seems to have been critical of people who were outwardly religious but who did not put those beliefs into practice.

'Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.'

Matthew 23:1-5

Liberation theologians would argue that true Christian faith should lead to action. If a Christian truly follows Jesus' command to 'love your neighbour as yourself' then they would not ignore the poverty and suffering of their neighbours.

One particular example of orthopraxis is given by Elizabeth Williams in her article on Liberation Theology and its influence in Latin America.

'An example of progressive social change initiated by the CEBs is in Nova Iguacu. A health program began there to try to organize the population in order to remedy widespread malnutrition, open sewers, and other health hazards. Courses were offered by the area's diocese and four secular doctors that went directly to the poor.  The population discussed all the problems they faced, not just health issues; simultaneously the people began organizing CEBs to address these needs.  These concrete efforts emphasized the needs of the local population rather than theoretical discussion.  It was liberation theology in praxis. The neighborhood health courses spread to other CEBs in Nova Iguacu and soon it became a mass movement, though still concerned with the local population's needs.'

Elizabeth Williams Liberation Theology and Its Role in Latin America (Article in The Monitor: Journal of International Studies found here.


Liberation theology was distinctive both in its methods and in the content of its theology.


  • Everyone could interpret the Bible (contrast to the idea of having a priest tell the congregation how a passage should be interpreted).
  • The stories were consciously interpreted in the light of experience. Liberation theologians looked for a correspondence of terms (parallels) between the Biblical stories and the present situation.  Segundo adapted Schleiermacher's hermeneutic circle to demonstrate how the Bible needed to be reinterpreted for the specific context of the people to keep it relevant.
  • Done within the CEBs.  Theology has a pastoral basis rather than a university/seminary basis.


  • Emphasis on the social content of Jesus' message.  Jesus as a social revolutionary who criticised the elite and sided with the poor.
  • Significance of stories like Exodus and the book of Revelation which offer a message of hope for the future.
  • 'Here and now' interpretations of concepts like the Kingdom of God.

Relationship to the Church:

CEBs existed within the mainstream Church and yet had a certain degree of independence from it.  This meant that they often had a somewhat awkward relationship with the Church authorities.  Members of CEBs were quite happy to criticise the Roman Catholic institution.  Meanwhile, the Papacy was very concerned that the CEBs (and liberation theology in general) were too influenced by Marxist thought.

One particularly significant issues was the question of whether CEBs represented an authentic form of Church.

The case for CEBs:

Theologically it can be argued that the structure of CEBs was similar to the structure and form of the Early Church in the first centuries after Jesus.  

  • The early Church met as a house Church in the houses of the richer patrons.
  • The early Christians faced persecution and danger much like the members of the CEBs who sometimes became targets due to their outspoken social message.
  • The members of the early Church had an active social concern 'Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.'  (Acts 5:32)
  • Jesus said 'For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.' (Matthew 18:20) which means that priests and special buildings are unnecessary.
  • Paul's letter to the Church at Corinth (see above) suggested that everyone contributed to worship in whatever way they felt that they could.

The case against CEBs:

However, it could be argued that CEBs are not authentic forms of Church because:

  • They downplay the significance of the sacraments (which the Catholic Church has traditionally taught are an essential way of receiving God's grace and thus are necessary for salvation).
  • They sideline the role of priests (which Roman Catholics have traditionally believed to be essential as mediators between God and man).
  • They criticise the mainstream Church thus challenging the authority held by the papacy and the priesthood via apostolic succession.
  • They focus on secular concerns when the Church's role should be concerned with soul rather than body.  
  • They are too closely aligned with Marxism (an atheist system).
  • They tolerate or even promote the use of violence for the greater good.

Liberation theologians might respond to this by arguing that they do not reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, they work within it.  Likewise, they do not ignore the traditional spiritual elements of the Christian message they just combine these with a more central social concern.  They might point out that the mainstream Church has also always been concerned with poverty, however, the Church has traditionally tried to help the poor without addressing the underlying conditions that cause poverty.  In other words, liberation theology is not doing anything radically different; it is just trying a different approach.

Further Reading:

Read Christopher Rowland's chapter on CEBs in the Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology online here.

To see how CEBs have sprung up in other contexts read this article about CEBs in the Philippines (good summary of the characteristics of CEBs).

Scott Mainwaring's article on CEBs in Nova Iguacu here (long but has some excellent detail).

Carol Ann Drogus' article on women's involvement in CEBs in São Paulo's CEBs here.