Brazil’s Catholic Church in Crisis
“THE CHURCH IN SEVERE CRISIS” “SHEEP WITHOUT SHEPHERDS.”
Headlines and expressions like these in Brazilian newspapers are sounding an alarm for the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil. This is ironic, for, according to the Portuguese-language Enciclopédia Mirador, Brazil is understood to have “the largest number of [Roman] Catholics in the world.”
What gives rise to this “severe” church crisis? Why the lack of spiritual shepherding of Brazil’s Catholics?
A LOOK AT THE CRISIS
Simply a glance at the religious situation in this land will reveal the elements of crisis. In the last 10 years alone, 2,300 Brazilian priests have abandoned their vocation. Earlier this year a newspaper carried an advertisement requesting a priest for a certain area. Though the ad promised “fine working conditions” and other benefits, only two individuals responded.
Lack of spiritual care by the Catholic Church has caused many Brazilians to leave the Church and take up other forms of worship. Oriental religions are growing in popularity. Young persons frequently find the rigorous monastic way of life advocated by these Oriental religious systems attractive. There is also a spread of cults that stem from Africa and pose an alarming threat of leading the entire country into spiritistic worship. Pointing to the seriousness of this threat are comments in the weekly publication Manchete:
“Today many consider Umbanda [a Brazilian form of spiritism/voodoo] as the nation’s real religion. Its Deliberative Body counts on 300 thousand cult centers in all Brazilian states. The number of Umbandistas [practicers of the cult] in the country is estimated at more than thirty million.”
Additionally, there are millions more who practice other forms of voodoo. The grand total is estimated at 70 percent of Brazil’s population of more than 110 million.
Since the Portuguese brought the Catholic religion to Brazil and there remain close ties between the two nations, a look at the state of affairs in Portugal is proper. Regarding the grave lack of Catholic clergy in Portugal too, the following comments appeared in the magazine Opção, published in Portugal:
“At the moment, there are about 4,908 diocesans and priests in the whole country. But their number tends to decrease considerably. In 1970, the patriarchate had a total of 525 diocesans; five years later there were only 377 . . . The main factor in all of this is the considerable decrease of students in the seminaries. In fact, it is rare to find even one of these seminaries functioning. This is due to the opening of technical schools in the rural areas where parents are now placing their children. So since 1974 there have been no ordinations in the patriarchate and until 1979 not more than six are foreseen.
“The situation is such that some priests feel they are the survivors of a species on its way to extinction. A great number of these simply celebrate mass on Sunday and during the week go to university or have regular jobs. They fear that from one minute to the next they may be obligated to find a new way of life. . . .
“Could it be, as the bishops affirm, a passing crisis that the Church is going through? Or could it be a grave structural crisis? The Church has been suffering too long for this to be called a ‘passing crisis.’”
IN SEARCH OF A CAUSE
That is the situation of the Church in Portugal. But what has brought the Catholic Church in Brazil to such a critical state? Among the causes, one stands out sharply. In recent years, sincere Catholics have shown bewilderment at the ever-increasing cry for social reform on the part of priests and bishops. In the agricultural and cattle-raising states of Mato Grosso, Goiás and Pará, with their hosts of destitute farmhands and Indians, some priests have been arrested, accused of fomenting uprisings.
Commenting on political involvement by the Catholic clergy, a military high official stated: “Instead of acting as representatives or spokesmen for the squatters, the priests and bishops have tried to take the law into their own hands, inciting groups of farmhands to illegal actions, such as invasion of the land.” In clashes of this type, two priests lost their lives.
Have genuine benefits come about from the Catholic Church’s meddling in politics? Not according to São Paulo’s Jornal da Tarde. “Abandoning her mission in order to devote herself to a course of action which is none of her business,” this journal remarked, “the Church is becoming empty and has nothing to offer to those whom she hopes to woo and who are, in effect, the politicians. At the same time, the [Catholic] faithful find themselves in the position of sheep without shepherds and, following their inherent religiousness, go after syncretic [Afro-Catholic] cults.”
Behind the Church-sponsored political agitation is a peculiar change of thinking on the part of many of Brazil’s Catholic clergymen. In his book O Diabo Celebra a Missa (“The Devil Celebrates Mass”), Catholic author Salomão Jorge presents this statement of Archbishop Dom Geraldo Proença Sigaud: “There is an ever greater and more dangerous infiltration of Marxist and communist ideas in seminaries and convents.” This materialistic philosophy has caused much unrest among impoverished people.
“THOUSANDS OF KILOMETERS OFF”
Brazil’s National Bishops’ Conference, on February 8 to 17, 1977, held its fifteenth General Assembly in Itaici, near São Paulo City. Was the agenda of a spiritual nature that would reinforce the faith of Brazil’s Catholics? That it would not be was evident from opening remarks delivered by Dom Aloísio Lorscheider, president of the conference, who stated: “We should let ourselves be guided and taught by the Holy Spirit. The great question is: What does the Holy Spirit say to the Church in Brazil at this exact moment in history?” In view of this, we reasonably ask: How can persons who do not know the answer to that question properly care for the spiritual needs of churchgoers? An editorial in O Estado de S.Paulo sounded this note of sadness:
“Nothing justifies the hope that the great number of assembled bishops would make able decisions to avert the serious crisis of the Church in the country or the lack of guidance that torments the consciences of countless faithful [Catholics]. . . . The distinguished members of Brazil’s National Bishops’ Conference are unable to resist the temptation of making political issues the main object of their attention. The desire to direct civil affairs and solve temporal problems takes priority at their meetings, while the House entrusted to their care and pastoral concern is sinking more and more into disorder and chaos.”
As expected, this assembly of bishops focused on political issues. After much debating, they drafted a document on “Christian Requirements for a Political Order,” which appeared a week after the 10-day meeting. Article 25 of this document declared: “A primary duty of the State is to stimulate conscious and responsible participation in the political, social, cultural and economic processes. . . . Through her divine mission, the Church has bestowed upon her the right and duty to cooperate in this task.” In view of this, an editorial writer for O Estado de S.Paulo commented: “It may be asked if . . . the National Bishops’ Conference does not find itself some thousands of kilometers off the course it should follow.”
GETTING THE SCRIPTURAL VIEWPOINT
What is the Biblical view of Christians agitating for political issues? In prayer, Jesus Christ said concerning his true followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) When questioned about his possessing kingly authority, Jesus replied to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is no part of this world. If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought that I should not be delivered up to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from this source.”—John 18:36.
Do you remember how Jesus reacted when certain men, recognizing his miraculous powers, tried to get him to rule over them? We read in the Bible: “Therefore Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:15) In spite of the fact that Jesus had the power to benefit mankind greatly, he refused to become a political leader. Why? Because he knew that God’s kingdom was, not earthly, but heavenly.
It is interesting to note how this Scriptural view affected Christians early in the Common Era. We read in the book Christianity and the Roman Government:
“The Christians were strangers and pilgrims in the world around them; their citizenship was in heaven; the kingdom to which they looked was not of this world. The consequent want of interest in public affairs came thus from the outset to be a noticeable feature in Christianity.”
Rather than urging his followers to get involved in civil-rights movements and other political activities, Jesus taught them to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, . . . Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matt. 6:9, 10) According to the Bible, that heavenly kingdom will soon “crush and put an end to all these [present earthly] kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” (Dan. 2:44) Hence, it is not man, but God, who will act to rid the earth of social injustice and all other woes.
Ignoring these Scriptural teachings, the Roman Catholic Church, and other churches of Christendom, have pushed ahead and tried to correct world problems in their own way. It is largely this that has led these churches into a state of crisis.