Catholicism in Brazil:  Question of Faith

By Rodolfo Espinoza, Brazzil Magazine



Despite a continuous draining of the faithful, Brazil continues to be the country with the largest contingent of Catholics in the world. Passed a phase of acute social awareness in which some priests dressed in guerrilla frocks and demanded justice, many Catholic and laymen nowadays would prefer discussing the Bible and the last papal message. On the eve of John Paul II's third pilgrimage to Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross), a previous name of the country, Brazzil draws a vast portrait of the Catholic Church in Brazil.




Some sobering numbers should serve as a counterbalance for the enthusiasm the pope's October trip to Brazil is generating in the country. This is the third time John Paul II visits the "world's largest Catholic nation", with 115 million of the 958 million Catholics in the world or 12 percent of the entire Catholic Church. While 99 percent of Brazilians called themselves Catholic in 1890, just one year after the Republic's proclamation, this number had fallen to 93.7% in 1960, to 80% in 1991, and has dwindled to 75% in the latest poll.


Even though these numbers are not a faithful portrait of the religious reality since they just tell the number of people who declared themselves to be Catholic, they are useful at least to show that many people are not afraid anymore of saying that they are not Catholic. At least 40 million Brazilians now say that they have another religion or have no religion at all. Starting in the '60s the Catholic Church has been losing believers mainly to Evangelicals and Spiritists. According to estimates from the CNBB (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil—National Conference of Brazilian Bishops), at least 600,000 Brazilians abandon the Catholic Church every year to join Evangelical churches.


There are 16 million Evangelicals in Brazil today, 10 percent of the population, meaning that the world's largest Catholic country has today the world's third largest Protestant contingent. In 1980 there were only 8 million members and they represented 6.7 percent of the population. And a recent study showed that while 75% of Brazilians still call themselves Catholic, a mere 13% go to mass and participate in the Church's life with assiduity. Among Protestants, two thirds are active in their religion.


"I am sure: from those who declare themselves Catholics, half of them accept only part of what Catholicism preaches," says priest Alberto Antoniazzi, director of the Theology Course at the Belo Horizonte (state of Minas Gerais) archdiocese.


Brazilian Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, the president of CNBB, estimated in 1992 that Brazil had about 60,000 Protestant pastors at work and that the Catholic Church had lost at least 20 million people to Protestant denominations. In September 1995, alarmed with the situation, Pope John Paul II exhorted the Brazilian bishops to do more to counteract the influence of other religions and sects. "The serious problems of sects," he said, "is spreading like an oil stain, threatening to cause collapse of the structure of faith in many nations," adding: "It is clear that their success can be explained by the lack of religious culture among the people, caused in large part by the loss of religious experience."


The pope also criticized what he saw as an ecumenical effort gone awry: "In the area of inculturation as well as ecumenism, in fact, one can see that...the search for understanding, welcome or openness towards other religious groups or churches has led to serious mutilations of the Catholic faith and liturgical prayer."


Do you believe in God? This was one of the questions asked in a Vox Populi national poll conducted in the first quarter of this year (1997) in Brazil. Yes, 99% of the people responded. To the item "Which is your religion?", 72% answered with Catholic, 11% with Evangelical and 9% with no religion. Another 3% declared themselves Spiritists and another 1% adherent of Candomblé and Umbanda, religions with African roots. To the question "Have you been to church last weekend?," 57% answered no.



But there is also good news for the Catholic Church. Since 1980, when the Pope visited Rio for the first time, the Church saw its numbers there grow by half a million new faithful and 35 new parishes and during these seven years, 15,000 new catechists joined the Church's crusade in Rio. This according to the latest statistics from Rio's archdiocese. The official numbers from IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística -- Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) are from 1991 and show that since 1980 the Church lost more than one million followers in Rio alone.


Also on the bright side for the Church is the fact that after a two-decade dearth of candidates to the priesthood and religious orders, the seminaries and convents are filled to capacity with would-be priests and sisters. While there were 350 new priests ordained in 1981, this number had grown to 510 by 1991. This increase, however, was not enough to accompany the population growth and the number of priests to serve the Catholic flock is still very low. Brazil had 12,723 priests in 1981, that is one per 9,750 Catholics. In 1992, 14,708 priests meant that there was one clerk per 10,620 believers.


In 1970, from a total of 13,092 priests working in Brazil, 41% were foreigners. By 1995 though, this rate had fallen to 23% while the number of priests had grown to 15,310. During the same period the number of religious priests has declined while there was an increase in secular clergy. The number of both categories are now roughly equivalent. In 1970 there was 1.6 religious priests for every diocesan priest. Worldwide the proportion is two secular priests for each religious one.


The Catholic Church, which has always shown a patronizing attitude and disdain for other faiths, is finally learning with them how to draw people and maintain them. It's been only two years since the Church started its first national TV network, the Redevida. Although underfunded and for the most part amateurish, the new network is a concerted reaction to the use of the electronic media by other religions, in particular the Evangelicals.


The Catholics also came later to the Brazilian Internet where Protestants and other denominations already have more than one thousand homepages. But their presence is being felt there too with a few dozen pages in place and a half a dozen more being created every month. The dispute between conservative and liberals has already appeared on the net. The conservative came in first with the Rio archdiocese launching its homepage in September of last year. Their subtle disapproval of their colleagues on the left is shown by their omission of these pages on their recommended hyperlinks. The liberals responded a few months later through the São Paulo archdiocese page and more recently with a space dedicated to the so-called Igreja Nova (New Church) that is linked to the Olinda and Recife diocese and presents texts by Clodovis Boff, brother of Liberation Theology theologian Leonardo Boff.


Dom Estêvão Bittencourt, a staunchly conservative Benedictine monk from Rio and a respected intellectual has become an Internet sensation by answering questions on line at the Mosteiro de São Bento site ( The questions can be made in Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The elder Dom Estêvão, who responds to at least three questions a day, explained recently in an interview with daily newspaper O Globo: "One has to adapt oneself to the times. It would be foolish not to use the Internet, such an admirable way for spreading the gospel."


Brazilian Catholics are counting on the papal visit as a powerful push for the Church and its plans of recouping lost terrain. In Rio, John Paul II will be also participating in two international megaevents with which the Church expects to mark the end of the millennium: the Second World Encounter of the Pope with Families to be held at the world's largest soccer stadium, Maracanã, and the Second Theological Encounter. Catholics from 190 countries will be taking part in these events.



The lack of freedom and the extinction of political parties by the military who took over the country starting in 1964 gave origin to several political movements inside the Church. The better known and most widespread of them were the CEBs (Comunidade Eclesial de Base—Grassroots Church Community) in which socialist views and a vocal defense of the dispossessed were welcome and prospered.


The CEBs experienced their heyday during the '70s. They still count some 2 million people and 70,000 communities around the country, although some of them are just a shadow of what they used to be. Among many of those that survived, the focus has changed. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of Soviet communism, the movement has changed its drive. In many instances now conservative leaders have taken control and the social discourse has given place to religious and ecological themes.


To redefine their priorities and reorganize for the '90s and the new millennium, 2,500 CEB representatives from all over Brazil together with 57 bishops gathered last July in São Luís, state of Maranhão. Friar Clodovis Boff, one of the leaders of the CEB movement, doesn't seem too enthusiastic about the groups prospects, however. In a recent article he wrote: "There is a certain perplexity, there is a disheartenment and a relenting of enthusiasm and vigor."


The surviving activists have shown that they still have fire in their bellies. The encounter divulged a document harshly critical of the government panning the administration for stressing its economic agenda and forgetting the social issues: "We noticed that, today, the worst exclusion is the exclusion from work when you lose land and a job," said in part an official statement." This situation generates violence and disintegrates families. We also noticed that the big cause for this exclusion is neoliberalism, a death project that only helps the market and those who can compete."


These days the groups of RCC (Renovação Carismática Católica—Catholic Charismatic Renewal) seem to be getting all the attention. The RCC experience started in the U.S. in 1967. Until recently, however, the movement was seen with disdain or barely tolerated by much of the Brazilian hierarchy. "We always had two great products, Jesus and salvation. All we needed was to sell it right," explained priest Leo Tarcísio Pereira, one of the leaders of the RCC, in a recent interview with the weekly magazine Isto É. The RCC is the Catholic version of Evangelical Pentecostalism with its emphasis on miracles, exorcisms and manifestations of the Holy Ghost.


According to a study by CERIS (Centro de Estatística Religiosa e Investigação Social—Center of Religious Statistic and Social Investigation) most of those joining the RCCs belong to the middle class. The work also has shown that the RCCs are not stealing believers from the CEBs. "The charismatic's profile is of someone who doesn't mix Church and politics," said sociologist and priest Luiz Roberto Benedetti, who coordinated the research. The conclusion was that the movement has mostly become a magnet for those Catholics who had abandoned Catholicism in favor of evangelical churches.


Like the Evangelicals, their inspiration, the charismatic Catholics are always carrying their bibles. Their religious services include testimonials of converts, miraculous cures, lively songs and dances. "The Renewal is strongly emotional," said theologian priest Alberto Antoniazzi to the weekly newsmagazine Veja. "It allows the layman a direct contact with the Holy Ghost. That's why it has become an option for Catholics from the big cities who for a long time have been away from the Church."


Today there are more than 15 million Catholics active not only in RCCs, but also in other equally conservative movements with names like Focolares (a movement created in 1964 in Italy by Chiara Lubich), Opus Dei (founded by Blessed Josemaria in 1928, in Madrid, Spain), Encontro de Casais com Cristo (Encounter of Couples with Christ), which was created in São Paulo in 1970. The new Catholicism is an old Catholicism that often preaches blind faith and unquestioned acceptance of the pope's teachings.



This is a very different Church from that of the oppressed, which drew a massive following in the '70s. The Church then had become a shelter for all sorts of discontents with a dictatorship that suppressed freedom and encouraged corruption and greed among authorities and the well-to-do. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo and Archbishop Hélder Câmara, both respected nationally and internationally, lent their prestige to the cause of the politically and economically oppressed. Dom Hélder was called the red bishop in a reference to his socialistic views and so terrified the generals that they declared him a "no-person," forbidding the media from even mentioning his name.


The new approach has been resonating also in the seminaries. A CERIS study shows that today's seminarists have a very different concept of their mission compared to the candidates to the priesthood in the early '80s. While in 1982 80% of the future priests dreamed of working with the landless, the poor and the CEBs, 90% of the current candidates would like to be a parish vicar, to participate in prayer groups and to counsel youngsters.


In 1985 the Holy See decided to forbid theologian Leonardo Boff from talking, imposing what it euphemistically called an "obsequious silence". It was the beginning of John Paul II's harder line that would also close some religious schools and cut in five pieces the archdiocese of São Paulo (four new dioceses were born: São Miguel Paulista, Santo Amaro, Campo Limpo and Osasco), considerably reducing the influence of Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and giving the new spots to bishops more attuned with Karol Wojtyla's conservative agenda.


With the division, Dom Arns also lost half of the 14.5 million believers who were part of the archdiocese as well as 590 of 875 CEBs that existed at the time. In the Olinda and Recife archdiocese, Dom Hélder was replaced by Dom José Cardoso Sobrinho, an ultraconservative. As a consequence, activities from CEBs have practically disappeared from that region.


There are those who see a link between the political involvement of the church and the loss of the faithful. "Movements like the Liberation Theology caused Catholicism to lose its appeal among its followers," said Caio Fábio D'Araújo Filho, president of AEVB (Associação Evangélica Brasileira—Brazilian Evangelical Association). The revitalization is occurring now thanks to the charismatic movement in urban centers and a return to traditional celebration in rural areas."


Clara Mafra, a researcher with the ISER (Instituto de Estudos da Religião—Institute of Religious Studies) also believes that political militancy has cost millions of souls to Catholics. Her study entitled "Novo Nascimento" (New Birth) showed that 61% of the people who converted to 85 different evangelical denominations were Catholics. Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan friar who became the main theoretician of Liberation Theology in Brazil blames the traditional church for the heavy losses, however. "There is a smaller number of Protestant sects in places where Liberation Theology was stronger and less persecuted," he says.



Brazil has five cardinals, the top names on the Church's hierarchy in the country, but all of them should be substituted soon with prelates who think more like the Pope. Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, from São Paulo and Dom Eugênio Salles from Rio, both are more than 75 years old. Under Canon Law, a cardinal must tender his resignation at the age of 75. The Pope can refuse to accept such a resignation, but he seems to already have chosen a replacement for Dom Arns. Dom Lucas Moreira Neves from Salvador, state of Bahia, and Dom Aloísio Lorscheider, from Aparecida in the interior of São Paulo are also close to the age limit. Dom Freire Falcão from Brasília is the youngest one.


Since 1995 under the presidency of Dom Lucas Moreira Neves, the conservative archbishop of Salvador, state of Bahia, the CNBB (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil—National Conference of Bishops of Brazil) has been mostly cautious and forgiving in its relationship with the government. Last April, however, the release of a document by the 35th general assembly of bishops in Itaici, interior of São Paulo state, brought memories of more combative times.


"There is a true purchase of votes of congressmen, through job offers, favors, public projects, fiscal exemptions, amnesty of debts and help financing institutions," said a statement. "It is an evident practice of active corruption by the government, which offers goods in exchange for votes." The document went on condemning the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration for not fulfilling its campaign promises symbolized by the five fingers of the hand representing agriculture, education, health, jobs, and security.


The attack didn't go unanswered. Cardoso released an official note calling the accusations "false, discrediting to the Congress and insulting to the government". The Church explained then that the document didn't represent the hierarchy's opinion, but it was only a paper prepared by the Ibrades (Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento—Brazilian Institute of Development) to serve as subsidy for the bishops' discussion. The explanation, however, was not enough to dissipate the stormy clouds between the Church and Brasília.


While the CNBB has prayed by a more moderate catechism, some of the organs linked to it don't run away from polemics. Organizations like CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionário—Indianist Missionary Council) and CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra—Pastoral Commission of the Land) are still very much attuned with the liberal current in the Church.


But for the most part the relationship between the Church and the government has been very amicable. In July, Cardoso has shown again that despite being officially an atheist he listens attentively to the Catholic hierarchy. With a background of protests from those who defend separation between Church and State, the President signed a law that regulates the teaching of religion in elementary schools. The new legislation makes religion an obligatory discipline like language and mathematics. While previous legislation talked about religious instruction "without any onus to the public coffers", Cardoso eliminated this clause. In no place it is said that what will be taught is Catholicism, but in practice this is what is already happening in public schools that teach the subject.


In another display of good will, the President, who recently visited the Pope in the Vatican, is breaking protocol and will go to Rio to meet John Paul II. It will be the first time that a Brazilian president leaves Brasília to greet a foreign dignitary.



The first mass on Brazilian territory was celebrated on April 26, 1500 by Friar Henrique de Coimbra just four days after Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil. The new land was then called Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross). In Cabral's party there were a few secular priests and 15 Franciscan friars led by Frei Henrique de Coimbra. None of the them, however, remained in Brazil when Cabral continued his trip to India. Evangelization started years later with a few priests fixing residence in some trading and storage forts along the Brazilian coast.


For lack of historical records, it is hard to describe how were the pioneer years for Catholicism in the new country. There is little doubt that some Franciscans lived in Porto Seguro in what is today Bahia state before 1521. Priests and other colonists were eventually captured and eaten by the Indians. When Portuguese King John III sent Tomé de Souza as Brazil's first governor-general he included several secular priests and Padre Manoel da Nóbrega leading four Jesuits. The Jesuits started a church and a school in Salvador, state of Bahia, and in one year, they had some 1,000 Indians ready to be baptized. Instruction and catechism lessons were given in the so-called "lingoa geral."


The Diocese of Salvador, the first one in the New World was erected in 1551 and Dom Pedro Fernandes Sardinha was made its first bishop the next year. In 1553 the Jesuit missions of Brazil and Portugal were separated with Nóbrega being named superior. Duarte da Costa succeeded Tomé de Souza as governor-general in 1553 taking with him 16 Jesuits, among them one who would be known as the Apostle of Brazil, José de Anchieta. Soon after, Bishop Sardinha was captured by the Caeté Indians and eaten after a shipwreck. He was on his way to Lisbon to answer before the king to some accusations made against him by the Jesuits.


It wasn't before 1584 that the Franciscans and the Benedictines started an organized work of evangelization. Franciscan Frei Melquior de Santa Catarina and his colleagues initially established themselves in Olinda. The Benedictines headed by Dom Antônio Ventura founded in Salvador their first abbey. By 1600 they already had monasteries in Rio, Olinda, Paraíba do Norte and São Paulo. In a 70-year period, the Franciscans were all over with more than 20 monasteries and several Indian missions. The Carmelites would arrive in 1589 under the leadership of Frei Domingos Freire.


The missionary push to the Amazon region didn't start before the end of the 16th century. The question of Indian protection has made understanding among missionaries and secular authorities very difficult. Governor General Diogo de Botelho (1602-1607) went as far as to ask the King that no new monastery was erected in Brazil. Partly due to clashes about how to deal with the Indians, Paraíba's governor, Feliciano de Coelho, had already expelled the Jesuits from his state in 1593 and the Franciscans in 1596.


Emboldened by the system of dual democracy of Portugal and Spain between 1580 and 1640, the Dutch occupied Bahia in 1624 capturing governor Diogo de Mendonça Furtado and all the priests they could put their hands on and taking them to Holland. Salvador's cathedral was converted into a Calvinist temple and the churches into warehouses. By 1654, after losing the Guararapes battle, the Dutch signed their capitulation ending the most serious Protestant threat to colonial Brazil.



In the 17th century, Jesuit Padre Antônio Vieira became the most vocal defender of the indigenous peoples rights. But by 1661 the Jesuits were expelled from the country. Only in 1680, thanks to new laws that forbade the enslavement of Indians and gave the missionaries control over the Indians, the mission work among the aborigines restarted. From 1680 to 1750 Jesuits, Franciscans, Carmelites and some Mercedarians developed an exemplary work at several aldeias.


The 18th century gold fever in Brazil caused the Catholic Church several losses. There was a pronounced lack of interest in religion and members of the cleric also caught the precious-stone fever. The anti-religious sentiment culminated in the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1782 by minister of state Marquês de Pombal (1750-1777) and the Catholic Church was stripped of its task of educating the population. The state from then on would assume this job. Anticlericalism wanted to suppress religious orders of both sexes. By the end of the 18th century all the religious orders were forbidden from accepting novices.


For economic reasons—the government had to support new dioceses and pay the bishops' salaries—the number of dioceses and bishops was maintained low during colonial Brazil. Up to 1822 when Independence was declared, Brazil had only seven dioceses: Salvador (created in 1551), Rio de Janeiro (1676), São Luiz do Maranhão (1677), Olinda-Recife (1678), Belém do Pará (1719), São Paulo (1746), and Mariana (1748). At the end of the colonial period, the notion was well established that priests were civil servants.


The transition in the Church from being dependent on the Portuguese crown into being controlled by the Brazilian government mirrored the bloodless transformation of Brazil from a colony into an independent empire in 1822 and then a republic in 1889. Regent Pedro I, who would become Emperor Pedro I, had several clerics at his side when he proclaimed Brazil independent from Portugal following the attempt by Portugal to return Brazil to colonial status, after a period in which Rio became capital of the Portuguese empire following the royal family fleeing from Lisbon in 1808 pressed by Napoleon. Dom João VI, the Portuguese king, arrived in Rio on March 7, 1808. That Brazilian city then became the Portuguese empire headquarters. One of the clerics was the first person to proclaim Pedro King of Brazil when he cried, "Viva o primeiro rei do Brasil." (Long live Brazil's first king).


There were 15 members of the clergy in the National Constituent Assembly presided over by Rio's bishop José Caetano da Silva Coutinho that gathered in Rio on April 17, 1923. The new constitution contained the following clauses: religious freedom for all Christians and tolerance for non-Christians, who, however, lost their political rights; Catholicism is the state's religion and the state has the obligation to maintain it; bishops had the right to censor publications dealing with dogma and morals.


The new constitution didn't please the emperor, however, and Pedro I selected a committee to write the Imperial Constitution of 1824 under which Brazil was governed until the Proclamation of the Republic. Most of the religious provisions were spared by the facelift. "The Roman Catholic Apostolic religion," read the new charter, "will continue being the religion of the empire. All other religions will be permitted with their domestic and private observances, in houses destined for that purpose, without any exterior form like a church." The clergy was to be supported by the nation's treasury. During the last days of Portuguese rule the stipend had been so meager that the clergy lived in a state close to misery.


Regalism was the order of the day during the reign of Pedro I (1822-1831) and then during the regency (1831-1840) with Pedro II still too young to assume the government. Messages from the pope required the imperial placet and dioceses and religious orders suffered continuous secular interference. During the 19th century some religious communities simply disappeared.


The so-called `religious question", which opposed the clergy and masonry, is believed to be one of the main causes for the Brazilian Empire's downfall and the Proclamation of the Republic on November 15, 1889. An important issue at the time was the decision of the Church to not accept the Emperor as supreme arbiter of religious matters.


The demands of separation between Church and state by the anti-imperial forces were promptly meted after the emperor's fall. On January 7, 1890, a decree abolished the patronage of the Church by the state and separated both institutions. The separation between Church and State also meant that public instruction would be laic. As for religious instruction, according to the Federal Republican Constitution promulgated on February 24, 1891, it could be given in public schools as long as it was taught after school hours and the state didn't have to pay the instructor.


The Catholics were allowed to keep their own schools. The ensuing constitutions in 1934, 1937, and 1946 maintained the same approach of a free Church in a free State. The 1946 constitution introduced the notion that the federal, state, and municipal governments cannot levy taxes "on places of worship of any sect."



Despite the impression to the contrary, the Catholic Church was never a serious power in Brazil. The Empire smothered it and the New Republic wanted distance from it. Both seemed interested in making it as innocuous as possible. The installation of the republic was a blessing for Catholicism. With the separation of Church and State, Rome was finally able to create the bishoprics the Empire had always denied. In 1889 there were only 12 dioceses in Brazil. By 1960 through the action of Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII this number had grown to 25 archdioceses and 87 dioceses. It wasn't before 1905 that the country had its first cardinal in the person of Dom Joaquim Arcoverde de Albuquerque.


Similar to what happened in Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy, and Salazar's Portugal, the Church in Brazil also backed the dictatorship even though there were some dissonant voices. The Catholic hierarchy was in favor of the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship during the '30s, helped topple João Goulart's left-leaning but democratically elected government in 1964, applauded the introduction of the AI 5 (Institutional Act 5), a dictatorial decree from 1968, which muzzled the media and placed federal censors in the press rooms. The good will tide only started to change after members of the clergy were imprisoned and tortured.


The Catholic Church and authorities never broke some informal ties. In practice, the Church and Catholic religious associations always continued to administer welfare, health and education funds furnished by the government. The Catholic Church has become the de-facto "official" religion since most of the population declare being Catholics. Priests, however, have very little authority over a flock that is Catholic by tradition and not by faith. For most people religious duties are just social obligations and they go to a church only on special occasions such as weddings, funerals and traditional ceremonies on Christmas and Easter for example.


Religious tolerance in Brazil? It never existed, says Antônio Flávio Pierucci, a professor of sociology at Universidade de São Paulo. Says he, "Catholicism was the official religion since colonial times, state religion and exclusivist."



Thales de Azevedo, a clerical sociologist, wrote in Social Change in Brazil in 1957: "If preventive measures are not taken in due time, the Brazilian Church shall have to endure great if not irretrievable losses, and most of Brazil may perhaps be lost to Catholicism." The lack of Brazilian priests has made Brazil for a long time a missionary land. By the mid '60s about half of the country's clergy were foreigners.


A shallow faith by Catholic adherents has made Brazil into a fertile ground for the development of Protestantism, African cults, spiritualism and plain secularism.


Traditional fetish cults have become a second religion for many who don't see any conflict between going to a voodoo cult Friday night and then to a Mass on Sunday. Brazilians proverbial tolerance has also attracted a massive influx of Protestant denominations starting at the end of the 19th century and including Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. After World War II new groups arrived, namely Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Pentecostals and adherents of the Four Square Gospel. The Pentecostals in particular were very successful in attracting new faithful.


In 1960 the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil drafted a road map to improve the Church's image and prevent further erosion of the faithful. Appealing to programs of social action the bishops proposed mass education by radio, agrarian reform, and unionization of rural workers. Almost 40 years later these problems continue to be the main preoccupation of the Church and the society.


The following document signed by the three Brazilian cardinals was released in April 1963, but it seems written just last week: "Brazil is an underdeveloped country where the masses do not share in the progress of the country and where poverty and premature death exist on a large scale and where the impact between rural and urban realities generates very grave consequences of loss of individuality. It is an order of things where a minority disposing of resources has full access to culture, health, comfort and luxury while a majority deprived of resources is denied the exercise of many of the fundamental and natural rights enumerated in Pacem in Terris encyclical (by John XXIII), such as the right to existence and to a decent standard of living."


Regular meetings by the Brazilian hierarchy to discuss national issues of the Church and to prepare collective pastorals started in 1901. The first Brazilian council of bishops was held in 1939. Today, next to the United States, Brazil has the largest Catholic hierarchy in the world. But the Church has lacked a powerful voice for a long time. The first Brazilian Catholic newspaper was published in 1930.


In some particular ideological areas, however, the Church lobby has become more and more brazen and powerful since the first days of the republic. They have been able for decades, for example, to prevent legislation allowing divorce, which was introduced only in 1977. Thanks to their efforts, abortion continues illegal in the country. One of the main proofs of their force was their ability to introduce in the 1988 Constitution the obligatory teaching of religion.

The Other Churches


Assembléia de Deus (Assembly of God)—The largest Pentecostal church in the country with 2.9 million people, 10,000 pastors, 130,000 temples, 13 radio stations and two TV stations. It appeared in 1911 in Belém, capital of Pará state, after a dispute among Baptists. The first Pentecostal missionaries arrived in Brazil in 1910, just four years after the appearance of the Pentecostals in the United States.


Congregação Cristã do Brasil (Christian Congregation of Brazil)—The result of a schism among the Presbyterians. Created in 1909 by an American Pentecostal. First temples were erected in the states of São Paulo and Paraná


Evangelho Quadrangular (Four Square Gospel)—Introduced in Brazil during the '40s by American evangelists. They used to preach in tents in the beginning. The first temples were built in São Paulo.


Igreja Batista (Baptist Church)— It has 1.8 million believers and a network of 70 first and second grade schools. They have no TV or radio station.


Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God)—Created in 1978 in Rio by Edir Macedo and a group of pastors who left the Igreja Pentecostal da Nova Vida (Pentecostal Church of the New Life). Growing fast in 50 countries. They have 2,500 temples and 321,000 faithful in Brazil. Their strategy is to extensively use the media. In Brazil they bought the Record TV network. They own 47 TV stations and 26 radio stations and they publish the 980,000-copies weekly Folha Universal.


O Brasil para Cristo (Brazil for Christ)—Founded in 1955 by Brazilian Manuel de Melo, who was previously pastor at Assembléia de Deus and Evangelho Quadrangular.


Renascer em Cristo (To Be Reborn in Christ)—Liberal and attractive to young people, the church has 120 temples in 10 states. They have a recording company called Gospel Records.


Candomblé—From Africa, it was brought by black slaves. It has two main orixás (gods) Olorum and Obatalá, the kind father of all the orishas and humankind. In Bahia there are more than 3,000 terreiros (places of worship) for Umbandistas registered with the Federação Baiana de Cultos Afro-Brasileiros (Bahian Federation of Afro-Brazilian Cults). There are less than 2,000 Catholic churches in the whole state. "It is very common that a person leaves a Catholic mass and goes into a candomblé terreiro," says Júlio Braga, an anthropologist and an expert in Afro-Brazilian culture. Until 1946 candomblé celebrations were forbidden by law and terreiros had to be registered in the police station up until 1974.


Espiritismo (Spiritism)—Codified by French doctor and philosopher Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, better known as Alan Kardec (1804-1869). Kardec believed that we can contact the dead through mediums. It first appears in 1848 in the U.S. In Brazil Spiritism arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century brought by Spiritualists and homeopathic doctors. The practice was patronized by Emperor Pedro II and his minister José Bonifácio. The Brazilian Spiritist Federation was established in 1884.

Patron Saint


Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Our Lady Appeared) has become the most important religious symbol in Brazil. The cult of the saint, who is black due to the fact that it remained underwater for a long time, started in 1717 after some fishermen fetched a 15-inch terra-cotta statue in their net in the Paraíba do Sul River, in a region between São Paulo and Rio. Legend has it that the fishermen were having a hard day with no catch and then had an abundant and miraculous fishing catch after the statue appeared.


The fame of the statue grew with time and it gained its first chapel in 1745. The first pilgrimages to the area that is today Aparecida started around that time. In 1822, the year Brazil was declared independent from Portugal, Emperor Pedro I proclaimed Nossa Senhora Aparecida patron saint of Brazil. More than one century later, in 1930, Pope Pius XI confirmed that title and in 1946 the Aparecida Basilica started to be built. The image was restored in the late '70s after being broken by a fanatic.


More than 3 million pilgrims visit the Basilica of Aparecida every year. Hundreds of thousands flock to the city on October 12, the saint's day. Last year, 215,000 pilgrims went to Aparecida on that date. Tens of thousands of people go to the little town every weekend. With the exception of Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe and Poland's Czechestowa sanctuary, no other Catholic shrine gets more visitors.


On Line


Offering polemics or just information on religion, representatives of different lines of thought in the Catholic Church have set their stores up on the Internet. Dozens of them have already claimed their territory in the brave new land of cyberspace. They contain names and telephone numbers of the hierarchy, priests and parishes. They also present schedules of masses, times of TV and radio programs, and explanations of the doctrine or the sacraments.


The all-encompassing Mundo Católico, for example, seems to be a complete site with dozens of links to other Catholic homepages. The sites from the archdioceses of São Paulo and Rio don't hide their ideological preferences. The first one even has a section called Polemics, in which Catholics are invited to discuss topics like abortion, contraceptives, globalization, and divorce. Here are some of the main WEB sites:


São Paulo Archdiocese -


Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil -


Igreja Nova (New Church) - from a group of laymen from Recife -

Mundo Católico -


Rio Católico (from Rio's archdiocese) -

On the Air


The Catholic Church has the largest radio network in the country with at least 181 radio stations in 22 states in the Union, meaning that in every group of 16 radio stations one belongs to the Catholic Church. All these stations are registered in the name of foundations or companies created by clerics since Brazilian legislation forbids churches to own a broadcasting concession.


Until 1994 the radio broadcasting operation was fragmented with each radio creating its own programs. With the implementation of a network strategy, the radio stations have gained a new visibility and power through the RCR (Rede Católica de Rádios—Catholic Network of Radio Stations).


Redevida, the national TV network still being built, was born in June 1995 as a response to the success the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus has had with its own much more powerful network. The effort started at TV Independente, a small TV station from São José de Rio Preto, in the interior of São Paulo state. Initially the signal could only be picked up by the 3.2 million families who had a satellite dish and the subscribers of the TVA and NET cable services.


To financially support the TV operation the Church created the Inbrac (Instituto Brasileiro de Comunicação Cristã—Brazilian Institute of Christian Communication). Initial estimates called for an investment of $100 million to install relay stations in about 300 dioceses.


Redevida is on the air from six in the morning until midnight. Some of the programs have a professional look and deal with controversial themes in an intelligent manner. During the month of July for example the show Teentrevista interviewed pop singer Margareth Menezes, band Olodum, and leaders of the Axé project, which works with street children. In Tribuna Independente, broadcast daily from 10:30 p.m. to midnight, viewers are encouraged to participate by phone and fax. Among other themes the show discussed in the last few weeks plastic surgery, breast feeding, politics and development, ecumenism and more religious subjects like the Bible and loving the mother of Christ. On weekends the Catholic network also presents several musical shows. They still have a journalism department in charge of a daily news program about the activities of the Church and special reports on religion and cultural subjects.


A Few Numbers


According to the 1997 Catholic Almanac, Brazil has 37 archdioceses, 201 dioceses, 13 prelatures, 2 abbacies, 5 cardinals, 45 archbishops, 308 bishops, 7966 parishes, 15,308 priests (7,663 religious, 7,645 secular), 699 permanent deacons, 6,772 major seminarians, 2181 brothers, 36,028 sisters, 133,680,000 Catholics (86.9% of the population).


Compare this to 34 archdioceses and 157 dioceses in the U.S., 11 cardinals, 64 archbishop, and 371 bishops. The United States has 60,280,454 Catholics (22.8% of the population), 49,009 priests, 19,726 parishes, 89,125 sisters, 6,357 brothers, and 7,562 permanent deacons.


Worldwide the Catholic Church has 539 archdioceses, 1,908 dioceses, 807 archbishops, 3,267 bishops, and 404,461 priests to attend 975,937,000 Catholics.



SOURCE: Brazzil magazine and website:


DATE PUBLISHED:  September of 1997