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The man of God in the court of men

Biography shows Father Vieira as a skilled political orator

Images provided by the Portinari ProjectIf the great desire of baroque man was to reconcile heaven and earth, a vision in which duplicity is the only consistent attitude, you will hardly find a better example of the species than that of Father Antônio Vieira (1608-1697). After fulfilling a religious obligation to care for the health of souls in heaven, the Jesuit priest devoted himself to matters that really gave him the greatest pleasure: the political affairs of the earthly kingdom of Lusitanian. “He was a man obsessed, a lover of complex machinations, a chess enthusiast, and conspirator. He was also self-centered and manipulative. He was cold and calculating, he made himself a character, wrote the script and performed it on stage. He was a rhetorician par excellence and artist by vocation. He made the pulpit a political platform from the first sermon: the great decisions of the monarchy began to be disseminated through Vieira’s sermons, elevating him, in practice, to the position of spokesman for the crown,” said historian Ronaldo Vainfas, a professor at the Federal University of Fluminense (UFF), in his biography of Vieira, the result of several years of research, funded by CNPq and FAPERJ, which will be published later this year by Companhia das Letras.

According to the researcher, Vieira worked for two great causes during the 90 years of his life: the struggle for the legitimacy of the reign of Dom João IV, leader of the Portuguese resurrection that ended Spanish rule in Portugal; and the defense of New Christians against the Inquisition, for reasons of religious conviction (he was a sincere filossemita) and also because the financial support of Jews was essential to the War of Restoration. “He was also the first person to openly challenge the Portuguese Inquisition, mixing the combative and political profile of the Royal Court with a social conservatism, always opposed to sedition in defense of hierarchies, maintaining that it was not up to the dominated but to obey their masters. At the same time, he consoled the oppressed through his preaching, beckoning heavenly glory after death,” said Vainfas. Above all, notes the researcher, he was the bearer of a project for modernizing Portugal, anxious to leverage the economy of the kingdom and strengthen the income of the crown. “Still, I daresay that in his heart, Vieira was a bitter man, melancholic, who needed a stage or a pulpit to come outside of himself. He was haunted by his humble origins, which he always strove to hide. Probably he knew of his Jewish origins by way of his maternal grandmother and mulatto ancestry by way of his paternal grandmother.”

Born in Lisbon, he came to Brazil in 1615 with his father, living in a modest house on the outskirts of Salvador. Educated initially at home by his mother, he studied with the Ignatians and, in 1623, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice, having a meteoric rise among the Jesuits. The Dutch invasion was the subject of his first public sermon, given in 1633. He was only a young man of 25 years called upon to raise the spirits of the Bahian population in resistance. His second sermon, given in that same year, played on an equally important topic: slavery. “The Jesuits condemned the enslavement of the indigenous, while the enslavement of Africans was supported by the pope on the grounds that captivity would bring them into the light of Christianity. They were two weights and two measures: in the case of Indians, slavery and catechesis were opposed. In the case of Africans, they were complementary,” says the historian. The sermon was given to a “brotherhood” of black slaves. “In the words of Vieira, ‘blacks’ should thank God for having been taken from the thickets of gentility in which they lived, to be ‘instructed in the faith”, assuring them of eternal salvation. Their glory was in their condition of slavery,” he says.

Images provided by the Portinari ProjectEven the defense of the Indians was done “out of duty”, according to the ideals of the Society of Jesus. “Vieira had no empathy for the indigenous way of life and for him, indigenous people’s only worth was in their souls being open to God’s word. Nothing more. The love felt by the Indians was abstract, nothing more than the caritas (charity) recommended by the apostles,” says Vainfas. He always defended social hierarchies and inequalities. In a sermon given in Lisbon, he told the poor not to lament hunger, as the more squalid one was, the less one would be eaten by worms in the grave. His great passion was politics. In 1641 he went to Lisbon in the company of a delegation of Jesuits who went to the metropolis to swear allegiance to the new Lusitanian king, Dom João IV. With luck, he won the favor of the sovereign and became the great protagonist of his reign. “For a king as insecure as Dom João IV, the priest was an invaluable source of support. He devoted himself to learning the politics of the court and, vain as he was, convinced himself that he was destined by God for a great mission: to glorify the king and establish his legitimacy. “From sermon to sermon, the researcher continues, Vieira was turning Sebastianism into “joanism.” He even arrived at the point of comparing Dom João IV to Christ: it was Vieira who was in charge of convincing the king that he was indeed the rightful king of Portugal. He became the main political orator of the monarchy, the most trusted man of the king, advisor on internal and external political and economic affairs, a sort of “prime minister”.

“Machiavellian par excellence, not in the usual sense, but in the sense that the goal of the prince was to retain power, Vieira outlined a political program for Dom João IV, whose axis was in support of the New Christians and against the Inquisition, a plan,” says Vainfas. The Society of Jesus and the Holy Office had different strategies of evangelization and were bitter rivals: the first bet on catechesis and pedagogy, while the later advocated punishment and intimidation. “The main enemy of Vieira was the Holy Office and he did everything he could to shatter and demoralize the Inquisition, particularly in his defense of the Sephardim, in order that the Judeo-Portuguese capitals around the world, especially in Holland, would be attracted to the Portuguese kingdom. His reasons were political and economic, but also driven by a devoted love of Judaism as a doctrine and to the Jews as ‘chosen people’, which he often confused, on purpose, with the “Portuguese people”. To Vainfas, Vieira it was also “modern”, because he was willing to stimulate the Portuguese economy with the injection of capital from the Sephardim, placing the interests of the crown above official religious orthodoxy. “His project involved a ‘gentrification’ of Portugal, a direct imitation of the Netherlands, a frontal attack on the structures of the Old Iberian Regime, at least those who sheltered themselves in the valuation of aristocratic ideals, a purity of faith and cleansing the blood, in a truly political and ideological war.”

Modern? There are other views on this. “There is something inveterately ethnic in his way of conceiving ‘business’, or ‘money’, terms that he understood within the rich semantics of Judaism. So this was very archaic and alien to the bourgeois world, different from, say, those who like to think of it as the author anticipates illustrated or revolutionary trends. It is enough to see that he never realized that capital has its own material determinations and that the mermaid is deaf to subtle theology,” writes literary critic Alcir Pécora at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), in: Vieira, the Inquisition and the capital [Vieira, a Inquisição e o capital].”

“Vieira believed in the providence of money, in the divine plan of business. The ‘money’ he spoke of is not the same as that of the bourgeois: far from secular, it is just as dark and supernatural as its Vice-Christ or Eucharist,”continued Pécora. “The Jesuit did not serve as a figure of pre-Enlightenment consciousness barred by inquisitorial obscurantism, but it is appropriate to attribute to him the consciousness of a man of militant faith who defends the hegemony of the Catholic state. The exegesis of capital is an essential part of this strategy and shows that ‘capital’ is an anachronistic term to the question of Vieira,” he added. “It was not the obvious and sincere belief in the Christian purpose of Jewish functions, it is inconceivable that Vieira took the place of capital as an object of such bold exegesis or applied years of his life, two of them in a cell, to prepare complex explanations which, nevertheless, had no value, “he writes.

Images provided by the Portinari ProjectHis philosemitism was also not so revolutionary. “His tolerance for New Christians was not unique in his time, being part of the growing attitudes of philosemitism and general tolerance in seventeenth century in Europe.” Like his contemporaries, Viera’s view of Jews mixed mercantilist ideology, political expediency and messianic expectations, which saw the conversion of Jews as a necessary step in the arrival of a “new era”. “Even his criticisms of the Holy Office were not so unique at this time in Portugal, although he was the most effective advocate of tolerance,” says historian Stuart B. Schwartz, a professor at Yale University. Just remember that his tolerance did not extend to Protestants and that he accepted Jews as being “less dangerous” than these “heretics”. “If he was an ‘advocate’ of New Christians and Jews, he did not defend the Jewish faith, and in the court of the Inquisition, he claimed to be in favor of its total extinction and the universal conversion of Jews.” To Schwartz, Vieira saw the survival of Portugal in economic terms and blamed the Holy Office for this weakness to attack the Lusitanian merchant class of New Christians, thus opening the door to foreign exploitation of the empire.

He was accused as a Judas for trying to negotiate a sizable compensation and restitution to the Dutch of the territory of Pernambuco after the start of Luso-Brazilian rebel movement against the Batavians. “Vieira considered the rebellion to be irresponsible. He warned that the rebels did not fight for the Catholic faith, but because ‘they owed a lot of money to the Dutch and were not able or willing to pay’. But he overestimated Dutch power, which was already not the same, and strongly belittled the Luso-Brazilian resistance,” says Vainfas. After all, had he been wrong, his overzealousness would have caused Portugal to lose a precious part of its colonial empire. The victory of the rebels hastened his decline into court and until the end of his life he regretted the position he had taken in the face of the Dutch matter.

In the midst of intrigue, even within the Society of Jesus, whose general order to disconnect from society and seek another religious order, out of fear of the priest, who did not conceive living outside of the Jesuit way. Vieira retired from politics and returned to Brazil on a mission in Maranhão. The all-powerful priest was forced to live in a cubicle, sleeping on a wooden mat. But the restless spirit never left him and he attacked the settlers who used natives as slaves. Arrested in 1661, he was deported to Portugal after a year in jail. It was indeed a result of his being “ostracized” to Maranhao that he began to dedicate himself to messianic writing. “He focused on the search for a link between the universal and particular, between the expectation of the resurrection of the world, with the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the kingdom of Portugal,” the author notes. The result was: Hopes of Portugal [Esperanças de Portugal]. The work is full of heterodoxies against official Catholic doctrine, like his foreshadowing of the resurrection of Dom João IV to lead in triumph of the Fifth Lusitanian Empire. The Holy Office received the “gift” with pleasure.

Images provided by the Portinari ProjectFather Vieira, in the trace of PortinariImages provided by the Portinari Project

“The Inquisition wanted to punish Vieira, but not burn him at any price. The goal was to beat him, humiliate him, and force him to recognize his mistakes and show everyone that the Holy Office was still the most powerful institution of the kingdom,” explains the researcher. In prison, the priest became even more mystical, and during the court hearings of 1667, he was renounced and repented of his errors. He was released, but lost the right to preach, going to Rome to be closer to the center of Catholic power. New stroke of luck: in Portugal he took over as regent for Dom Pedro, candidate of Vieira, facilitating his life in the Holy See. He regained his right to preach and was invited to assume the post of the pope’s official preacher, who he persuaded to suspend the court of the Inquisition in Portugal. To his disgrace, the ban was lifted a few years later. Tired of the uphill struggle against the Inquisition, he returned to Bahia in 1681 a broken man of 73 years who used his final years to prepare sermons for publication. He died in 1697, almost blind, and deaf. Shortly after he arrived in Brazil, he received news of the reestablishment of his full rights in the Society of Jesus.

He lived during complex times, in which heaven and earth engaged in a delicate relationship. “There was no separation of church and state, and until the eighteenth century, policy was seen as a matter to be deciphered by a theological-legal key. People refused to conceive of a political order disconnected from a transcendental order, the ‘Catholic understanding of politics,” says the historian Pedro Cardim of the New University of Lisbon. “After all, Vieira was a politician” On the one hand, no, in particular the concepts in his sermons. On the other, yes, if we consider the trajectory of the priest who was, by his own will, always close to power, one of the most outstanding protagonists in the Lusitanian political processes of the 1600s, “says the researcher. More Baroque, impossible. “It has been said that you can read the most scholarly studies about Vieira without realizing that he was a priest. But you can not understand it without taking this into consideration, because the ministry of the pastor took precedence over all other facets,” says historian Thomas Cohen, author of The Fire of Tongues: Antonio Vieira and the missionary church in Brazil and Portugal. Or, as he put it: “Words are enough to speak to the wind. To speak to the heart requires work.”