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Sciences of religion

Between the Cross and The Cauldron

How the relationship between the Vatican and the Brazilian Church developed

“How many divisions does the Pope have?”, Stalin would ask when someone would suggest to him that perhaps it was worthwhile to be more tolerant with Soviet Catholics, in order to gain sympathy from Pope Pious XI. Effectively, beyond a handful of multicolored Swiss guards, the papal power is not palpable. Even at that, as well observed by Elias Canetti, “in comparison with the Church, all the powers of the world appear dilettantes.” Statistics do not take account of its importance: at the same time that a survey from the Getulio Vargas Foundation indicates that, with every generation, the number of Catholics in Brazil falls (over the last 20 years the Vatican lost 14% of its Brazilian souls), another, from the same institution, about citizenship, reveals that, for Brazilians, the only democratic institution that functions is the Catholic Church, with credit very much higher than that given to the political class. Hence the mixed sentiments that accompany Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil, next month, when he will open the 5th Latin American Episcopal Conference (Celam), and also canonize the first national Saint, Friar Galvão.

“Brazil is strategic for the catholic Church, about all in South America. A Covenant between the Vatican and our country is being prepared. In it, all of the relationships between the two forms of power (religious and civil) will be revised. Everything that is dependent on the Church will be done by it in the sense of managing advantageous concessions for its pastoral flock, including repercussions upon the internal common rights of Brazil (research with stem cells, for example, abortion and other arduous questions)”, evaluates the philosopher Roberto Romano. “Religious acts that are used for the political or diplomatic ends of the Church are not uncommon. Whoever looks at Christ the Redeemer, in Rio, will hardly know that the statue means the consecration of Brazil to the spiritual sovereignty of the Church, something that corresponds to the ecclesiastical policy of secularism, of modernism and of liberal democracy.” The repercussions of the visit are wide ranging.

The educator at the University of São Paulo, Roseli Fischman, in the article entitled, “Threat to the secular State”, pointed out that the Covenant could even include the return of religious teaching in public schools, a theme, incidentally, that will make up part of the seminar to be sponsored in December by the Secretariat of Continuous Education, Reading and Writing and Social Diversity (Secad in the Portuguese acronym), of the Ministry of Education. “The unexpected invoking of MEC to deal with religious teaching has repercussions as to the violation of rights, in particular of religious minorities  and all of those who have practiced all forms of liberty of conscience and belief in this country since the time of the Republic”, the researcher believes.

The question of Stalin as well as the arrival of Benedict XVI, seems to be asking another question, much more subtle: what is the relationship between the Vatican and Brazil, would it be spiritual, would it be political? “Everything that’s said about the Church has a high dosage of speculation: there are 2,000 years of wisdom beyond ours. The Church in the institutional plan is a ‘company’, even though it goes back to medieval times, which gives to it a degree of wisdom beyond what we know in modern times. The analysis in political hold is always insufficient for the current papacy. Besides: we lost the notion that theology had been, one day, space of knowledge. This is for sure a field of conflict between what this papacy signifies (and the previous one) and modern format, strictly secular of thought”, evaluates the professor from the Theology Department of PUC-SP Luiz Felipe Pondé. Who needs divisions when they have eternity as their? “The Church,” remembered professor Canetti, “appreciates slow time. Just observe processions: in them nobody runs, everybody walks with dignity and slowness. Haste is for sects and movements. The Church walks in the rhythm of centuries and, hence, it has the capacity to be more effective, in terms of domination, than the many powerful cited by Canetti”, completes Romano. But this power has its peculiarities.

“The Church calculates its territorial interests taking into consideration divine intervention and the universal human impact in pursuing these interests. Few, if any, States can take pride in using these criteria in the formulation of their policies”, observes Lisa Ferrari, from Georgetown University, in her recently launched book, The Catholic Church and the nation-state. The “non-political” pretense had not stopped being political. In fact, until the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-1965), the Church opposed the modern conception of human rights. In 1791 Pope Pious VI went on to condemn the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French National Assembly, considering it as a document that went against the principles of Catholicism. Especially, the liberty of cult was something demonic, because it had placed the “true” faith on the same footing as the “others”. With the Peace of Westphalia, at the end of the Thirty Years War, and the consolidation of national States, the Church lost its territories and ended up encapsulated within the Roman limits of the Vatican. The Micro-State, however, would elevate the Papacy to the hegemonic center of a transnational religious regime. By way of the control of the bishops’ nomination, the Pope progressively gained total power over the national Catholic Churches. This was the globalization of faith.

An unheard of power that permitted the Church to only accept the modern world, remembered the Brazil scholar Scott Mainwaring, during the pontificate of Leo XIII, especially the encyclical Rerum novarum, of 1891, which dealt with the living conditions of workers in industrial capitalism. The next step was that of Vatican II, during the Papacy of John XXIII, who attempted an aggregation of the institution with the definitive incorporation of a modern discussion on human rights in the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). The Covenant, observed scholar Mainwaring, emphasized the Church’s social mission, developed a notion of the institution as the People of God, modernized the liturgy, among other points. Although a European event, the reforms led to changes that were more significant in Latin America, in particular Brazil, than in Europe.

There were, nevertheless, other consequences. “The decade that followed the Covenant marked the appearance of two factions at odds within the Church: conservatives and liberals. This development, more than the salutary directions of Vatican II, unfortunately formulated the agenda of the Vatican during the 1970’s and onwards. The pontificate of the Hamlet like Pope, Paulo VI (the successor to John XXIII), for example, was marked by the most serious challenges to the power of the pontiff, with the fleeing of the faithful and the abandonment en masse of priests”, recalls the Brazil scholar Ralph della Cava, from Columbia University, in his article entitled, “Vatican policy”. It is worth recalling, notes scholar Della Cava, that in 1984, concerned with ecclesiastical “fragility”, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, during an interview, spoke about the necessity of “reinterpreting” Vatican II. Something, nevertheless, had already changed.

More than ever, the Church “had entered” into the secular and global world. “It created the condition for the development of a new type of Catholicism, which no longer used the State and its cohesiveness to secure its public presence. Starting from then it rethought the relationship between Church and society, without the intermediation of the State”, explains scholar Kenneth Himes from Georgetown University. In the opinion of José Casanova, from the New School of Social Research, the Vatican’s external policy, expressed by way of a modern type of public Catholic religion, from now on would perform in the interest of peace and justice, in such a manner that the participation in the transformation of the world would not be simply an addendum, but the constitutive dimension of the Church’s divine mission. By a historic piece of irony, the Soviet Premier Khrushchev saw himself obliged to recognize the importance of the mediation of John XXIII during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Now one knew how many divisions the Pope had. The so called ecclesiastic Ostpolitik (the Vatican policy for the countries of Eastern Europe) took on a parallel with the American détente policy. John Paul II was one of its greatest enthusiasts.

He, indeed, noted scholar Casanova, was one of the most important spokesmen for the globalization of the Catholic Church. “In unity with Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II retook the papal authority with the aim of recovering the power and unity of the Church. His pastoral visits were a movement towards this end, since they deeply altered the exercising of external power of the Vatican, which gained notable importance. His journeys invested the pontificate with the power to incarnate ‘faith in loco‘. Starting from then, the papal authority went on to be exercised more directly by way of the Holy Father, instead of by Cardinal or prelates.”, observes scholar Della Cava. With trustworthy names in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger) and the Sacred Congregation for Bishops (today occupied by Don Cláudio Humes), Pope John Paulo held the Marxist “flock” resulting from Vatican II and expressed in the Liberation Theology. He changed the bishops for conservatives, continues Della Cava, and, giving greater powers to the Roman Curia, gave a new course to his pontificate: a new geo-policy for a world order in transformation. How did all of this movement affect Brazil? “The Catholic Church in Brazil was relatively impermeable to the changes caused by class conflicts during a good part of the 20th century. However, as the Church opened itself up socially and the society became more polarized, the institution went on to be affected by political changes”, evaluates Mainwaring. Way back in 1916.

Then the Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Don Sebastião Leme, published a pastoral letter that, notes  Mainwaring, “marked the beginning of a new period in the history of the Brazilian Church”. In it he had argued that Brazil was a Catholic nation and that the Church should make use of this fact and mark its presence more strongly in society. “During the greatest part of its history, the Brazilian Church had less power in Brazil than that in Spanish America and never had available the financial resources that their equivalent churches benefited from”, explains the Brazilinist. Separated from the State in the Republic, adds Della Cava, Catholicism did not know how to make use of the religious and institutional liberty that had been given to it. The letter from Archbishop Leme raised a roar in the Vatican.

“But Rome preferred a Church officially unified to the State, or, at least a Covenant between the Holy See and the secular State, notwithstanding the ideology of this.” The revolution of 1930 brought a golden chance, not wasted by Archbishop Leme, who sent a strong message to president Vargas: first in May of 1931, with the invocation of Our Lady of Aparecida as the Patron Saint of Brazil and in October with the statue of Christ the Redeemer, in Rio. President Getulio Vargas understood the message from the Vatican and reemphasized Catholicism as the country’s official religion. Even the Rerum novarum was a point in common between the corporativism of Vargas’s CLT (Consolidation of Labor Laws) and the “new” ecclesiastical turn in favor of workers.

At the end of the regime, however, “with the priesthood in decline”, notes scholar Della Cava, “the lay religiousness and the growth of alternative beliefs, generated an internal  religious crisis of Catholicism”. The solution came during 1947, with the work of Don Hélder Câmara, and brought the Vatican spotlights to the country with the founding, in 1952, by the Holy See, of the National Council of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). “The simplicity of the Conference should not obscure the significance, without parallel, of the Vatican’s decision. There never had been, in direct canon law and in Roman practice, any precedence in the creation of a permanent structure like the CNBB. As well as this, up until then in no country in Latin America had the Vatican wanted to play a direct role in the internal questions of the national Church of an independent and autonomous nation”, analyzes Della Cava.

There was a however: the Catholic rightwing saw itself, unexpectedly, exonerated from power. This would be an inspiration for future “fires”. At that moment, however, “the most important activity of the CNBB did not become a project. It was a preoccupation of Rome and the State of the Catholic Church in Brazil, the largest in the world. The solutions adopted were, at the same time, traditional and innovative, but erred in the production of results: the number of priests remained inadequate for the task”. The social and political substrate, nevertheless, grew under the full glare of the Vatican.

“The dramatic appeal by John XXIII after the Cuban revolution is a document in which the Vatican supported cooperation between Church and State. The Bishops must demonstrate to the governors the urgency of structural reforms and improvements for the underdeveloped masses. The hierarchy and the Church should cooperate in this and actively participate”, recalls Della Cava. But the Pope’s model was nebulous and unprecedented, liberating unknown forces of the pontificate, by way of  bringing together  the Vatican II ideals and the 1968 meeting of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, where there sprung up the “preferential option for the poor”.

“The Brazilian Church leaders were the vanguard of the Liberation Theology, which took Latin America by assault”, explains the Brazil scholar Christine Kearney. More than just “the largest Catholic Church in the world”, Brazil took on importance in the Vatican’s external policy. “After Medellin, came Puebla, in 1972, in which the Celam gained great importance as part of a process that intended to increase the control of the Vatican that had already begun a decade previously. After an era characterized by strong innovative tendencies and a growing involvement of progressive groups in political actions, the Churches of Latin America, especially that of Brazil, feel the pressure from the groups of the Roman Curia”, evaluates José-Maria Ghio, from the University of La Plata, in his article entitled, “The Latin American Church in the Wojtyla era”.

With the direction of the Celam in the hands of the conservative Bishop Alfonso Trujillo, “there was the elaboration of a policy to revert the tendencies created in Medellin; once again, the Social Doctrine is shown as external to the world. And, according to the Celam, the Church should not attempt to go towards the social demands as an intermediary, if this were to imply the participation of members of the institution in the secular world”.

In an interview that he gave to Brazilian journalists, at the end of one of his visits to Brazil, John Paul II made clear his total disagreement with the Liberation Theology, which he saw as far too close to Marxism, and declared his disposition in ending its influence in Latin America. “A great change took place when Rome chose a Pope who had had a concrete experience of life opposite to that which had made up the great hope of Latin America: Marxism as the hermeneutic of salvation”, says Pondé. “John Paul II was an effective post-modern Richelieu, who helped a lot in the change of the world’s ideological map, but his pontificate signified a regression of the Vatican II ideals. Catholicism, in Brazil and the world, lost autonomy in the face of the Holy See, which impeded the initiative of local churches, with the consequent fleeing of the faithful etc.”, evaluates Romano. Ismar de Oliveira Soares, a professor at the ECA and author of Do Santo Ofício à libertação [From the Holy Office to liberation] agrees: “A heavy uneasiness involving the Vatican’s relationship with sectors of the Latin American Church, sympathetic to theological  renovation and its pastoral development continues, remembering that the theme is not reduced to the silencing of some charismatic figures”.

Thus, what is the meaning of the visit by Benedict XVI? “Starting from the decade of the 1970’s, the policy of the Church in relation to Brazil changed, it was put in a corner: out went support and in came contention. Today two elements show a change of direction: the Celam took place in Brazil, a gesture from the Pope himself, since Brazil did not have the power for so much, showing that he wants Brazil yet again as a player in Vatican politics; the nomination of Don Cláudio to the Holy See, which reinforces this process of re-approximation”, said in a recent interview father José Oscar Beozzo, the coordinator of Cesep (The Ecumenical Center of Services to Evangelization and Popular Education). For him, the Pope re-established the institutional bonds between the Roman Curia and Brazil, and the CNBB has returned to making up part of Vatican relationships. “Benedict XVI is a European Pope who is beginning to discover Asia and Latin America, which led him to choose Cardinals from these two regions for key posts in the Vatican. Here he will reinforce the principle that all authority is centered on the Pope and Bishops, being up to them, and not to the catholic community, to establish the directions of the institution in Brazil”, believes Soares.

Finally the Brazilian Saint. “In the political sense (and in terms of religious marketing) it could be to stop the loss of the faithful. But I don’t look upon Benedict XVI as a marketing-orientated Pope and I believe that his choice must be pointed to for reasons of theological priority”, analyzes Pondé. “The new Saint has a biography that brings him close to the imaginary of a good part of the population. Devotion to him will lend strong emotion to doctrinal rationality, not always accessible to the common faithful”, ponders Soares.

For the historian at PUC-SP, Fernando Torres-Londoño, the pontificate of John Paul II gave a lot of importance to canonizations. “Through the canonization and beatification of men and women in Mexico, Guiné, Zaire etc., John Paul II had believed that the examples of these people and the recognition of their saintliness stimulated other Catholics to live their faith intensely. The choice of Brazil for the canonization of the first national Saint is moving in this same trajectory.”

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves. The Pope personifies the multiplicity of desires that bring restlessness to the Church with the complicated relationship between Catholicism and contemporary society. The invitation to return to the sacred is a denial to the mixture of religion and politics and their tensions. Sacred spaces whose accesses are restricted to ordained priests reaffirm something much more difficult to understand in the contemporary world, which is the simple fact that in the sacred there is not, nor could there be, democracy”, wrote José de Souza Martins, a full professor of sociology at USP, in a recent article published in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. “The manifestation of the Pope, far from being conservative and of being a condemnation of the advances of an up-to-date Church, is in truth a stunning manifestation of post modernism.” Could it be that the Pope,  after all, could really be pop?