History of Roman Catholicism in Brazil

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This article details the history of Roman Catholicism in Brazil. The Federative Republic of Brazil is the largest country in South America. It is the world's fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population with over 192 million people. Roman Catholicism is the country's predominant faith. Brazil has the world's largest Catholic population.

Colonial era

It is said that the first Mass celebrated in Brazil was on Easter Sunday in the year 1500 by a priest in the party who claimed possession for Portugal. Evangelization began some years later, and a diocese was erected in 1551.

The conversion of Brazil, beginning about the middle of the sixteenth century, was brought about by the Jesuits, after whom came the Franciscans, and these were followed by the Benedictines. Tomé de Sousa, first Governor General of Brazil, brought the first group of Jesuits to the colony. The Jesuits represented the spiritual side of the enterprise and were destined to play a central role in the colonial history of Brazil. The spreading of the Catholic faith was an important justification for the Portuguese conquests, and the Jesuits were officially supported by the King, who instructed Tomé de Sousa to give them all the support needed to Christianise the indigenous peoples.

The first Jesuits, guided by Father Manuel da Nóbrega and including prominent figures such as Juan de Azpilcueta Navarro, Leonardo Nunes and later José de Anchieta, established the first Jesuit missions in Salvador and in São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga, the settlement that gave rise to the city of São Paulo. Nóbrega and Anchieta were instrumental in the defeat of the French colonists of the France Antarctique by managing to pacify the Tamoio natives. The Jesuits took part in the foundation of the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1565.

The success of the Jesuits in converting the indigenous peoples to Catholicism is linked to their capacity to understand the native culture, especially the language. The first grammar of the Tupi language was compiled by José de Anchieta and printed in Coimbra in 1595. The Jesuits often gathered the aborigines in communities (the Jesuit Reductions) where the natives worked for the community and were evangelised.

The Church showed notable progress in the colonial period, especially 1680-1750, even though hampered by government policy. The Church and government had contrary goals as regarding the Amazon Indians, whom the government was exploiting and reducing to slavery.

The Jesuits had frequent disputes with other colonists who wanted to enslave the natives. The action of the Jesuits saved many natives from slavery, but also disturbed their ancestral way of life and inadvertently helped spread infectious diseases against which the aborigines had no natural defences. Slave labour and trade were essential for the economy of Brazil and other American colonies, and the Jesuits usually did not object the enslavement of African peoples.

In 1782, the Jesuits were suppressed, and other missionaries expelled as well. Liberal anti-clerical influence grew, and the government tightened control on the Church.

Empire of Brazil

After Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, government control became even tighter, under the new emperors (Pedro I & II, son and grandson of the King of Portugal). Under the Empire, Catholicism was the only recognized Church, and it was supported by the States. Other religions were tolerated, but Catholicism was the official church.

A conflict between the church and the Emperor about the place of Freemasons, known as the Religious Question was responsible for a substantial weakening in the Empire's political stability.


After the revolution of 1889, however, the Provisional Government issued a decree proclaiming the separation of Church and State, guaranteeing freedom of worship, and declaring that no church thereafter should be subsidized by the government, nor in any way receive support either from the federal government or from those of the individual States. By the terms of this decree public officers were forbidden to interfere in any way with the formation of religious societies, and it was declared to be unlawful to stir up religious dissension among the people. Every religious body was at liberty to worship according to its own rites, while each individual could live according to his belief, and unite in societies with others, and build churches if he chose. The salaries of those in the service of the Church were ordered to be discontinued at the expiration of a year. The existing churchyards were secularized, and the question of the establishment of new cemeteries was left in the hands of individual communities. Religious bodies, however, could choose separate burial places, though always subject to the laws. The existing religious holidays, except Sunday, were abolished by another decree, and nine new ones established commemorating secular events. Later, a civil marriage law was passed, somewhat resembling those of the United States and France, and also a divorce law. This latter, however, bore the stamp of the religious training of the people, for by its terms, neither party was permitted to marry again during the life of the other.

Dictatorship and Democracy in the 20th Century

The changes in the organization of the Brazilian Catholic Church during the first half of the 20th century set the stage for its radical transformation during the second. Increasing involvement in the education of elites led to the emergence of new and politically diverse movements among the laity, while attempts to assert more orthodox Catholicism among marginalized peoples increased awareness of the plight of peasants and Indians among the lower clergy and some bishops. Many clergy members and lay leaders thus supported the attempts at social and political reform that took place during the post-Vargas Republic. However, growing unrest and fear of Communism led the Church hierarchy to endorse the military coup of 1964. Still, a few bishops and numerous priests, particularly in the poorer regions, strongly criticized the military government’s economic policies and human rights record. During the 1970s, the Catholic Church emerged as a key pro-democracy voice within civil society. Ecclesiastical Base Communities (CEBs), small groups of believers who focused on linking grassroots religious and secular change, spread throughout the countryside. These became the foundations of the so-called “popular church,” which assertively advocated social justice and became increasingly influential within the Church. By 1979, the Brazilian Church was the most progressive in Latin America, while managing to avoid many of the confrontations between radicals and conservatives that wracked other churches in the region.

Present day

In the 20th century, such controversial issues as theological liberalism and the question of the mixing of Catholic ritual with rites from other sources continued to provoke much discussion within the Church.