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Religion and politics in education

European Catholic congregations met the need for schools in Brazil from the late 19th century until the second half of the 20th century

Students at the Caetano de Campos school in São Paulo: in the early 20th century, the school’s directors were members of the League of Catholic Teachers

Archives/Content Estadão/Agência Estado Students at the Caetano de Campos school in São Paulo: in the early 20th century, the school’s directors were members of the League of Catholic TeachersArchives/Content Estadão/Agência Estado

Motivated by the secularization of European states, Catholic congregations came to Brazil between the 1890s and the second half of the 20th century, bringing with them technical knowledge in areas such as education, health care, publishing and architecture. In the field of education, the congregations offered knowledge and experience in teaching, both in terms of preparation of teaching materials and in organizing the schools. For a long period of time during the history of the Republic, the Brazilian state relied on the services provided by the Church to ensure that some of its obligations were met. These were the conclusions of the thematic project “Catholic congregations, education and the national state in Brazil (1840-1950),” coordinated by Agueda Bernardete Bittencourt, professor at the University of Campinas School of Education (FE-Unicamp).

The project also surveyed the Catholic congregations that were and are active in Brazil, mapping out some 500 of them. The information on these missions will be made available in a database open for consultation by the public in the coming months. As a result of the project coordinated by Professor Bittencourt, which extrapolated the period indicated in the title, going all the way up to the 1990s, annual colloquia were held in Brazil and abroad, and dossiers were prepared and published in the journals Brasileira de História da Educação and Pro-posições. In 2017 the latter will publish a special edition featuring articles by researchers who were involved in the project.

Previous academic studies focused on the history of the Church in Brazil and on religious life, but did not analyze the impact of mass immigration on the policies of the Brazilian state. Studies have also been done on the work of specific congregations, but they did not examine the presence of these missions in a broader manner, as this project sought to do.

According to Bittencourt, the congregations brought their pedagogical knowledge acquired during years of work in their countries of origin, and adapted this knowledge to local reality, participating in the establishment of basic education services in Brazil. Under the European monarchies, as was the case during the Empire in Brazil, the Church was linked with the State. As countries like France and Italy became republics, they established a separation between Church and State, and the survival of religious orders and monasteries was endangered. A far-reaching reform transformed orders and monasteries into congregations, taking their religious mission and expanding it, adding a social focus. With the restrictions placed on their activities in Europe, which was becoming progressively more secular, at the end of the 19th century, the Church looked for alternatives beyond the continent. A significant landmark in this process was the Latin-American Plenary Council of 1901, convoked by Pope Leo XIII, which regulated the Church’s role in Latin American countries, seeking to take advantage of the Catholic heritage of the European colonizers as well as to vigorously oppose the entry of Protestants.

In Brazil, even though the Church had been active since the arrival of the Portuguese, its local presence was exercised mainly through the parishes, seminaries to train the clergy and lay organizations, such as the third orders and sisterhoods. After Brazil became a Republic, the Church’s activity increased and became more professional through the work of the immigrant foreign congregations. “The congregations founded schools, ran hospitals, founded sanctuaries and publishing houses; these social activities justified their existence,” affirms Bittencourt.

Chapel of Christ the Worker in São Paulo: reference to the charitable orientation of the Church beginning in the 1950s

Leonardo Wen/Folhapress Chapel of Christ the Worker in São Paulo: reference to the charitable orientation of the Church beginning in the 1950sLeonardo Wen/Folhapress

Foreign culture
At the beginning of the study, which started in 2012 and is scheduled to end in June 2016, the researchers worked under the hypothesis that the congregations immigrated because they had been expelled from the European countries. However, over the course of the work, different interests were found to have been at play in this process. For example, although France placed restrictions on congregations in its educational system, it supported their activities in Brazil and other countries in Latin America. “The French State had an interest in promoting the French language and culture,” says Bittencourt.

On the other hand, while the European republics closed themselves off to the Catholic congregations, the Brazilian State, which was unable to serve the entire population through a public education system, left gaps in education that were partially filled by the European congregations.  In this process, the clergy, connected to the Brazilian dioceses and interested in modernizing local Catholicism, invited the foreign religious organizations to meet these needs, according to  the area of specialization of each organization: creation and management of educational institutions, production of educational materials, editing and publication of books, teacher training, and other activities.

Bittencourt explains that at the beginning of the 20th century, public education in Brazil was limited to primary education, a few secondary schools and a spattering of isolated courses of higher learning. With the arrival of the Catholic congregations, schools were founded at all levels. Until the mid-1950s, secondary education in Brazil was mostly private and confessional. The children of the elite attended these secondary schools, and they were principally located in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, as well as the southern states, whose immigrants were insisting on Catholic assistance and education.

The researcher notes that contact between public schools and Catholic schools led to an intensive exchange of knowledge and ideals. This was due to the movement of teachers between the two types of schools, and to agreements between governments and congregations. “The practicing Catholic teachers who taught at public schools brought Catholic pedagogical practices and ways of thinking to the public school network,” she says.

An example of the relationship between public education and the Church is provided by the Colégio Caetano de Campos – the first public teacher training institution in São Paulo – whose directors also ran the League of Catholic Teachers between 1920 and 1930 and used educational materials produced by the League at the school. In addition, states such as Santa Catarina and Mato Grosso signed agreements with some congregations for them to teach at rural schools.

At the end of the1950s, Latin American clergy began to develop a theology directed toward the poor. This was in line with the movements begun by the French Church in the post-war period, such as the worker-priests, who left their parishes to live in working-class neighborhoods and spread the gospel. Even private schools, established to serve the elite, began to offer services to lower income populations, a social initiative that continues to this day.

She notes that Brazilian history differs from that of Argentina, for example, which achieved universal primary education at the end of the 19th century, leaving little room for the pedagogical work of the congregations. However, in Brazil, universalization of education; that is, meeting the entire need, was barely accomplished in the 1990s. According to the Ministry of Education, in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, coverage was 97.5%.

The congregations adapted the theoretical and technical knowledge developed in their countries of origin to the needs of Brazilian society. A good example of this are the Marists, who traditionally administered education in France. When they came to Brazil, they used their pedagogical knowledge to found schools and create teaching materials. In 1901, the Marists founded FTD (which stands for Frade Théophane Durand, superior general of the Marist Congregation from 1883 to 1907), a publishing house in São Paulo, which is still one of the largest in the field of educational materials. The Ministry of Education and the state and municipal governments are its principal clients. “This does not mean that the FTD books necessarily contained religious content, but that in regard to some topics, the content is presented from a Christian standpoint,” she explains. Other Catholic publishing house were opened in Brazil during the period between the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Vozes, which is still present in the market today.

Bulletin of the League of Catholic Teachers, from 1949, and the first volume of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, from 1901

Reproduction Bulletin of the League of Catholic Teachers, from 1949, and the first volume of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, from 1901Reproduction

Maintenance of privileges
According to Carlos Roberto Jamil Cury, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais School of Education (PUC-Minas) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais School of Education (FE-UFMG), the congregations came to Brazil both to leave the political conflicts in Europe behind and because the Catholic hierarchy wanted to establish a different type of Catholicism in Brazil. Instead of the “popular” practices, considered to be superstitious and “contaminated” by other beliefs, the Church sought to emphasize Roman Catholicism, which was more hierarchical, serious and traditional. Additionally, the work of the congregations contributed to a certain retreat by the State in the area of education. “During the Empire, priests were public servants paid by the government,” says Cury. “With the advent of the Republic, they took advantage of the insufficient public school network to maintain their influence and prestige in Brazilian society.”

Luiz Antônio Cunha, a professor emeritus at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro School of Education (FE-UFRJ), interprets the presence of the Catholic congregations in education as a dispute between the religious and political fields. According to Cunha, before the Republic was established, the Brazilian state supported the Catholic Church financially. Teachers swore an oath to accept the religion and understood that no other faith would be taught in public schools. As a result, until the end of the 19th century, Protestant immigrants and missionaries from the United States, England, Germany and other countries encountered restrictions on their civil rights.

In spite of this, according to Cunha, even before the Proclamation of the Republic, the coffee-producing oligarchs in São Paulo state allowed Protestant pastors to provide education in cities outside the state capital. Later, when São Paulo state natives such as Prudente de Morais became president, they incorporated Protestant pedagogy into their government policies. “There was a certain affinity between the declaredly renewalist ideology of the coffee growers and the pedagogical work of the protestants,” says Cunha. In general terms, he explains that Catholic pedagogy was based on the memorization of content and respect for tradition, while Protestant pedagogy was based on a method in which the student played a less passive role in learning, and which allowed the questioning of tradition.

Catholic congregations, education and the national State in Brazil (1840-1950) (nº 2011/51829-0); Grant Mechanism Research Grant – Thematic project; Principal Investigator Agueda Bernardete Bittencourt (FE-Unicamp); Investment R$ 246,113.00.