The Catholic Church in Brazil

The Catholic Church is deeply enmeshed in Brazil’s culture, beliefs, and institutions. The Church arrived with the Portuguese conquest in the sixteenth century and has since been the dominant religion. From 1500 to 1889, Catholicism was the official state religion. Even after disestablishment and the efforts at secularization that began under the First Republic (1889-1930), the Catholic Church retained its property holdings and continued to play a significant role in public ritual and private social life.

The Catholic Church began the modern era as part of an alliance between politicians and the business oligarchy that held back meaningful political reform and social justice activism, particularly during the nascent years of the Brazilian labor movement. During the 1930s, the conservative Church supported the authoritarian Getulio Vargas regime, who, in turn, restored power to the institutionally weakened church, relying on it for ideological support.

After World War II and continuing through the 1960s, the Catholic Church faced a number of challenges. First, a wider variety of educational options became available to middle and upper class Brazilians and enrollment in Catholic schools fell. Second, the 1960s saw Brazil’s shift from a largely rural society to an urban society. Urbanization disrupted traditional relationships in rural areas, including those with the Church and those often mediated by the Church, for example between tenant farmers and landowners, and created demand for new social networks within the urban setting. It presented Brazilians with a wider variety of options in the ideological marketplace, including evangelical Protestantism, African-derived religions, socialism, and communism. These alternative ideologies, especially Pentecostal and evangelical Protestantism, often met the rural migrants’ demand for new networks.

Rural migration into cities also swelled levels of urban poverty. The endorsement of human rights, democracy, and religious freedom by the Second Vatican Council provided an official theological language within which to frame such concerns. The catalyzing event for the Church was the rise of military dictatorships between 1964 and 1980, which deepened Brazil’s economic woes and ushered in a dark era of suppression, censure, torture, and killings, including those of Catholic priests, nuns and bishops.

In response, the Catholic Church in Brazil underwent a transformation from conservative buttress to the state in the 1930s to a prominent critical voice against capitalism and political policy, becoming the most radically progressive of the Latin American Catholic Churches. Priests and bishops joined the struggle for labor and land rights and in coming decades worked to expose abuses committed by the military junta. The Church organized community groups meant to address basic concerns among the poor, but which later became politicized under the military dictatorship. Underpinning these changes was the development of Latin American liberation theology, a set of ideas which emphasize the role and rights of the poor and marginalized, and social justice as salvation. Ultimately, the Church emerged as the primary oppositional voice against the military and facilitated the transition to democracy in the 1980s by allying itself with grassroots movements, trade unions, and opposition political parties.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Roman Catholic Church entered a period of marked conservatism in reaction to Vatican II and pushed back against the progressivism of Brazilian Catholicism. It emphasized a need for evangelism over political action in the context of a changed religious marketplace—in which Pentecostalism’s share grew larger and larger—and in which Catholicism was no longer presumed to be the most powerful and unifying tradition. As socialism and Marxism began to recede in the popular imagination in the 1990s, the same effects rippled through the church and grassroots enthusiasm waned. These efforts manifested in the empowerment of conservative Brazilian clergy, and the growth of a charismatic Catholic movement and, among Afro-Brazilians, the adoption of an Africanized mass, as adaptive strategies to appeal to congregants.

Though transformed yet again, the Catholic Church maintains a streak of progressivism that has withstood the post-Vatican II retrenchment. Today’s Brazilian Catholics are internally diverse, ranging from staunch conservatives to radical progressives, and include members of all socioeconomic strata.

Catholic activism is enabled on an institutional level, via the Brazilian Conference of Bishops, and on the level of the laity, through Ecclesiastical Base Communities (CEBs). The CEBs were forums in which liberation theology was discussed with the intention of instituting change on the community level. CEBs facilitated a religious critique of social, economic, and political policies and provided a channel to communicate the needs of the laity to priests and bishops. They trained and nurtured future political and social leaders, especially from traditionally disadvantaged populations, such as the urban and rural poor, women, and Afro- and indigenous Brazilians.

The rise of competing religious movements has been the strongest challenge to the Catholic church in the current century. While Brazil remains the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the number of Roman Catholics has fallen steadily from 95% of the population in 1940 to approximately two-thirds in 2009. Much of the exodus consists of women, young people, and the middle classes. However, since 2000, ‘no religion’ has become the primary replacement. This competition has prompted a number of responses, including a deepening of social justice activism inspired by liberation theology, as well as the emergence of charismatic Catholic worship that echoes Pentecostalism. One of the outcomes of liberation theology and Catholic activism was the emergence of a specifically Catholic black consciousness movement, which manifested in an enculturated mass inspired by African traditions and which drew explicit links between race and poverty.



John Burdick, Looking for God in Brazil: The Progressive Catholic Church in Urban Brazil’s Religious Arena (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 2.

Robert M. Levine, The History of Brazil (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 85.

Christine A. Gustafson, “Faith-State Relations in Brazil:  What Does Religious Competition Mean for Democracy?” Religion and Politics in a Global Society, ed. Paul Christopher Manuel, Alynna Lyon, and Clyde Wilcox (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 113-138.

Kevin Neuhouser, “The Radicalization of the Brazilian Catholic Church in Comparative Perspective,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (1989), pp. 233-244.

Eric Patterson, “Religious Activity and Political Participation: The Brazilian and Chilean Cases,” Latin American Politics and Society, Vol. 46, No. 4 (2005), pp. 1-29.

Manuel A. Vásquez and Christina Rocha, “Introduction:  Brazil in the New Global Cartography of Religion,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 1-42.