A Turning Point?

Brazil’s slide toward Protestantism appears to slow, as the Church shows some signs of renewal.

It’s a safe bet that most American Catholics don’t know that Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world. They might guess Italy, France, or Mexico, but Brazil has far more Catholics than any of these countries.

The once proudly and monolithicallyCatholic Latin American nation, however, has seen a significant number of its citizens gravitate to Protestant sects. It has also seen leftists rise to high positions in government, including the presidency, along with seeing secularism creep into the culture.

Still, the Church in Brazil, as I observed during a week-long visit to the country last December, displays some early signs of renewal as it transitions from the destruction and confusion following the Second Vatican Council to a revival of tradition promoted by Pope Benedict XVI.


Like the rest of Latin America, Brazil descends from European colonization, but from a unique mother country. Latin America’s largest country both in terms of population and land area, with the region’s largest economy and the most Catholics in the world, is not Spanish-speaking. Instead, Brazilians speak Portuguese, since the country is a former colony of Portugal, which claimed it in 1500 but which lost it to independence in 1822.

Brazil had her own Europeandescended emperor until militarybacked revolutionary movements swept the monarchy away. Many black Brazilians have a nostalgic view of Brazil’s imperial past, since her monarchs were instrumental in abolishing slavery in a nation with 3.3 million square miles, half the land area of South America and almost as large as the United States.

Now, Brazil has 200 million people, including 148 million Catholics, at least nominally. Italy’s total population is 58 million, France’s is 64 million, and Mexico’s is 110 million.

Except for the United States, Brazil is the most successful large melting pot nation in the world. Not only is there a mix of white, black, and American Indian populations, each subgroup has a vast range of diversity as well. Some whites are predominantly Portuguese, many Italian, and many others German.

Meeting a fair-skinned, blond-haired Brazilian named Schneider isn’t the least bit surprising, at least not to other Brazilians. Whole Brazilian cities are of mostly German descent. São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil and in Latin America as a whole with 12 million people, is 20-to-30 percent Italian. Brazilians of Japanese descent are a common sight, as are Orthodox Jews in skullcaps. With the large amount of intermixing that has occurred in Brazilian history, about 40 percent of Brazilians have some black blood but, unlike in the United States, are not necessarily labeled “black.”

The concept of the mulatto is very much alive. Many have Indian blood as well, but very few purely Indian Brazilians remain, though their existence is used by the government for major ideological purposes. Slightly less than half of Brazilians are classified as “white.”

Despite all this ethnic and historical diversity, Brazil has a cohesive national identity that, like the Church globally, manages to transcend all such boundaries without destroying them. With little immigration in recent decades, Brazilians have a commonality and relative lack of racial animosity that one can feel in the streets. Even in the large cities, almost everyone speaks fluent Portuguese.

Brazil’s strong Christian heritage helps unify the country. Before Vatican II, 95 percent of Brazilians were Catholic, making a Catholic background as assumed then as it still is in Italy today. But in the wake of turmoil in the Church after the council, along with the rise of industrialization, Brazil’s Catholic identity began to erode rapidly. By 1980, 89 percent of Brazilians were Catholic; by 2000, it had fallen to 73.9 percent.

Evangelical Pentecostal-oriented Protestant sects account for most of the defections and now have 15-to-18 percent of the population as members. Even the latest Brazilian soccer sensation, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (nicknamed KakÁ), who currently plays for AC Milan in Italy, is a devout evangelical. The rest have no religion or practice pagan religions such as Macumba, a Brazilian form of voodoo.

In the past few years, the proportion of the population that is Catholic has stayed put at 74 percent. Experts and everyday Brazilians offer four explanations for the post-1960s erosion of the Church in Brazil:

• During and after the Second Vatican Council, the impression of doctrinal abandonment and then the actual abandonment of the old liturgy confused and alienated many rank-and-file Brazilian faithful. Leftist bishops were more interested in promoting egalitarian political policies than in promoting Catholic doctrine as liberation theology became the fashion. A spiritual vacuum opened as clergy urged their flocks to political activism rather than holiness.

• With industrialization, huge numbers of Brazilians were forced to leave their farms and small towns and move to the big cities to find work. Millions continue to live in favelas, or shantytown slums, built around major metropolitan areas. The Church failed to adapt to this epochal social dislocation, did not build churches, and did not send priests or lay apostles to minister to the dislocated masses, leaving the field to entrepreneurial evangelicals with large donations from American Protestant denominations.

• Heresy and leftism became the trend among Brazilian clergy more thoroughly than it did even in America, driving doctrinally and morally conservative Brazilians into the arms of Bible-toting Protestants. To this day, Brazilian Protestants are noted for their dedication to traditional doctrine, pro-life activism, family values, and antisocialist beliefs.

• Heretical Brazilian Catholic leaders claim that the Church’s teachings on contraception, divorce, homosexuality, “women priests,” and the like have alienated many Brazilians, who would come back to the Church if these teachings were abandoned. Yet the successful Brazilian evangelical churches are doctrinally and morally conservative, and just as in the United States, conservative religious denominations are growing while the most “relevant” ones, such as the Episcopal Church, wither away.


The Tridentine Mass reaches few Brazilian people outside of the traditionalist Catholic community in Campos. There, a large community living in schism was reconciled to the Church and enjoys the Tridentine liturgy under its own bishop. Traditionalists are trying to spread the Mass of the 1962 missal that Pope Benedict XVI authorized for wider use in his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.

But Brazilians currently flock to more charismatic Masses similar in style to the services of Brazilian evangelical churches. The spread of the charismatic movement is one of two reasons for the halt in the Church’s demographic decline in Brazil. Charismatics not only offer the kind of emotional experience during worship that attracts many Brazilians, but they emphasize doctrinally and morally conservative teachings in line with the Magisterium.

Rather than preaching the need for socialism or women priests, charismatic priests by and large preach devotion to Christ, life, and family. The most successful is Father Marcelo Rossi, whose CDs of contemporary religious music outsell Brazilian pop and who attracts 15,000 people a week to his Masses. He performed Gospel songs after Pope Benedict said Mass in São Paulo in May 2007.

It appears that there is a slow but ongoing return to tradition, while liberation theology looks passé. “No one talks about it anymore,” one longtime Catholic activist told me. “People are interested in Our Lady, in praying and devotion. Their faith isn’t political. This is very different from the way it was 20 years ago.”

Land reform used to be the major preoccupation of Catholic activism in Brazil. Activists wanted the government to take land from large landowners and redistribute it to landless peasants, even though the government itself owns most of the land of Brazil and could do some redistribution of its own. But the current leftist government headed by Catholic President Luiz InÁcio Lula da Silva, though constantly threatening to implement land reform, has not done so, perhaps because it does not wish to jeopardize Brazil’s powerhouse agricultural industry.


Abortion is illegal in Brazil but sadly common, and leftist leaders in Brazilian government never cease in their efforts at liberalization of abortion laws. They are stymied by Brazilian public opinion, 80 percent of which is opposed to abortion legalization.

Catholics and Protestants are working together to save their country from the onslaught of the secularist cultural revolution. With European nations, Canada, Japan, and South Korea already in demographic spirals caused by below-replacement birthrates and aging populations, Brazilians worry about their own declining birthrate, now down to an average of 2.3 children per woman. (The minimum replacement rate is 2.1.) Brazil’s youth exodus could increase enormously now that the global depression has hit the country hard, forming the beginnings of what will probably be a large and long job market contraction in a nation that cannot afford a big welfare state.

A young evangelical from Brazil’s old and distinguished former capital city of Rio, TÁrsis Gonçalves, works for Aliança Vida e Família (the Alliance for Life and Family) and attended a speech I delivered to a Brazilian pro-life group. I first met him when he came to the March for Life in Washington in 2008.

“We’re very interested in Obama and what goes on in the United States,” he said. “That has cultural influence here.” He and others worried that the political trends in the United States, plus cajoling from the US State Department and other US agencies with power and money, could accelerate the trend toward antilife and anti-family policies in Latin America. In the past few years, proabortion groups in Brazil have not only continued to pressure Latin American governments to promote abortion with the help of the United Nations and the European Union, but they have filed lawsuits to overturn pro-life laws undemocratically, in imitation of US activists.

Brazil’s legal system, in which courts generally do not set precedents, has not lent itself to such tactics, but the courts may move in that direction and have already made some rulings in favor of abortion in the hard cases that pro-abortion activists like to highlight. “Now there is something called alternative law” that the courts have determined, a Catholic law student told me in São Paulo. “It’s just beginning.”

Action through the legislature is still the most likely method that the pro-abortion forces will have to use to legalize abortion-on-demand, and now they will have the full backing of the government of the United States with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


In São Paulo, I attended a conference honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP). The TFP, a Catholic laymen’s group, was instrumental in anti-communist efforts in Brazil, and the major newspapers in Brazil marked the centennial with articles on Dr. Plinio’s influence.

Most of the conference participants to whom I spoke worried about the future of their country’s culture but felt that internally, the Church in Brazil is at a promising turning point. Cardinal Odilio Pedro Scherer, made archbishop of São Paulo in 2007, has deemphasized the sort of leftist activism that his immediate predecessors liked to promote. Even culturally, interesting things have happened in São Paulo, by far Brazil’s richest and most influential city. The conservative mayor banned immoral advertisements, and now one can drive from one end of this sprawling metropolis to the other without seeing a single billboard or poster with a bikiniclad woman on it.

In my time in São Paulo and Rio, I saw little of the decadence for which Brazil is famous. No one begged, and I didn’t see a single one of the street children for whom Rio is so renowned. A week spent in Washington, DC wouldn’t have yielded the same results, and so perhaps wouldn’t one spent in poorer cities of Brazil.

I had lunch with Prince Bertrand of Orléans-Braganza, a Catholic leader with an occasional column in the largest-circulation newspaper in Brazil, Folha de Sao Paulo. He is the younger brother of Prince Luís, the heir to the Brazilian throne. Prince Bertrand uses his column to advocate a Catholic basis for Brazilian society, the sort of thing that no major newspaper in the United States would allow. “I believe that we are in a better position now to advance Catholic beliefs than we have been in a long time,” he said. “People are questioning the trends that Brazilian society has been following for decades.”

For the first time since the overthrow of the monarchy, Brazil signed a bilateral agreement equivalent to a concordat with the Holy See last year. The agreement reaffirms the legal status of the Church; exempts dioceses and religious orders from employment laws when it comes to their priests and members so that canon law has exclusive jurisdiction (Brazilian labor laws can be onerous); ensures that religious buildings have a place in urban planning; and promotes the teaching of religion in public schools, though religions other than the Catholic faith may be chosen. The agreement mostly formalizes what had been long-standing practice, but provides another layer of protection for the Church’s freedom as the dictatorship of relativism advances.

The Church still faces many legal challenges. The homosexual movement continues to make gains in Brazil as elsewhere, and leftists tend to brook no opposition on this issue. A bill has been introduced in the Brazilian Congress that would prosecute anyone, including a priest giving a sermon, who caused “moral, ethical, philosophical, or psychological embarrassment” to someone on the basis of sexual orientation.

It appears that many Brazilians are waiting and willing for the clergy to resume preaching and ministering to people with spirituality rather than politics. But first, the Church must do what the evangelicals did: Show up. It’s a free market in religion these days, and the Church must compete. As Cardinal Scherer told the BBC shortly before Pope Benedict’s visit to Brazil in 2007, “We are not very present in the large cities. One priest is not sufficient for 100,000 people.”


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