Why Catholics Lost Political Space for Evangelicals in Brazil

The growing importance of evangelicals in Brazilian politics has been out of the question for some time, but it is always highlighted in election years, given the undisguised concern of so many candidates not to alienate this public, at least not irreversibly. On the other hand, if the advance of Pentecostal Protestantism in politics has been widely studied and noticed, the reasons that lead Catholics, as a collectivity, to receive much less attention from relevant politicians are not so much debated. Recent estimates indicate that 2021 will probably be the year in which the percentage of Brazilians who declare themselves Catholic will reach 1988 %, the lowest rate in history. Despite this, numerically, Catholicism remains the religion with the most faithful in the country, suggesting, therefore, that the relative disproportion of attention given to Catholics in politics has causes that go beyond demographic statistics.

Among analysts, there is a consensus that any reflection on the topic must start from the significant differences in the way Catholics and Evangelicals deal with electoral issues. Culturally, in evangelical communities, the choice of a member – often the pastor himself – who should represent the faithful and fight for their demands in the political field is not only accepted naturally, but also encouraged and taken on as a mission. Once the chosen one is presented to the faithful, the tendency is for there to be great adherence to the name. “This is not done out of naivety, but because for evangelicals the bridge with their representative is much more direct, flexible and intuitive. The faithful go to church and see the pastor ask for a vote. If you like him, vote. Doing this in the Catholic Church is almost impossible due to the distinct hierarchical structure – with moral authority centered on the pope, then bishops and priests – which makes the evangelical environment more attractive to traditional politicians,” explains the philosopher and columnist for Gazeta do Povo Francisco Razzo.

He also emphasizes that as one cannot speak of an ‘evangelical church’ in the sense of a single institution, there is no hierarchy rigid as that of the Catholic Church that prevents simple arrangements as described. Catholic priests and bishops, for example, although they exert great influence with their faithful, cannot legitimately apply for political office, according to the rules of the Church itself, which are followed by clergy around the world and issued from the Vatican. In its article 90, the Code of Canon Law explicitly establishes that clerics “do not take an active part in political parties”, on the grounds that the Catholic priesthood must prioritize communion among the faithful with Christ. The necessarily sectarian character of party politics, therefore, would be incompatible with such an end. Although not everyone is obedient to the canon, the established is mostly accepted and the rebels tend to end up abandoning the priestly practice, given the level of problems they create for themselves within the ecclesial hierarchy or even the community itself.

The distinction in Catholic doctrine between priestly and lay vocation forms the background of this rule. While vetoing the participation of priests, in numerous documents the Catholic Church encourages the lay faithful to engage in the political world and work for the common good. In the encyclical Christifidelis Laici, of 1988, for example, Pope John Paul II arrives to say that “the lay faithful cannot abdicate in any way from participating in politics”. However, based on the same principle of promoting unity in the faith – even if there is a divergence in politics – priests and bishops are equally advised not to declare support for any candidate or party, which poses a considerable challenge to Catholic laymen who apply, but they cannot legitimately make use of the masses to ask for votes, nor can they count on the vigorous participation of popular priests in their campaigns. Without access to pulpits during Masses, nor to religious leaders as explicit sponsors, candidates who target the Catholic vote are at an evident disadvantage when compared to their evangelical colleagues.

Cultural identity

Another aspect that favors evangelicals in the search for attention from politicians is how much adherence to a certain party trend weighs while component of religious identity. Without so many traditions, rites and devotions, political agendas, especially conservative ones, would gain greater importance as a link that promotes unity in evangelical communities. In them, at least the expectation is created that a churchgoer will vote for the candidate of that church, with a relative convergence of opinions on the themes defended by the candidate.

Among Catholics, there is the Doctrine Church Social, which is often used to establish parameters of what is or is not acceptable to the faithful with regard to public policies. However, it is broad enough to accommodate a wide variety of currents of thought. Added to this, we have the fact that party politics is an unnecessary and even frowned upon element in parish life, which contributes to the diversity of opinions on non-religious topics among those who frequent the same parish.

In other words, today, it is possible for most Catholics, for example, to go to mass every Sunday, pray the rosary every day, participate in novenas and enjoy Gregorian chant, thus feeling fully immersedoa in catholicity, without even facing the need to talk about elections. The variety of elements that strengthen the feeling of belonging to the community is great, even without going into the political issue. If from the point of view of Catholicism this phenomenon configures respect for diversity within the unit, for candidates it is an additional obstacle.

Still in the cultural aspects, Razzo reminds us that the other side of this coin is hindering Catholic convergence around the same party, candidate or political current, is in the figure of the “non-practicing Catholic”, a self-declared title by people baptized in the Catholic Church, who have some affection for religious traditions, but who do not fully adhere to it. to their dogmas, they do not commit themselves to live according to the moral teaching of the Church, nor to attend Mass assiduously. As the expression of the Catholic faith is possible, to a large extent, through cultural habits, it is easier for a Catholic to be flexible with secularism and continue to consider himself a Catholic, even if he falls into contradictions. The same does not seem to happen with evangelicals. “You have the non-practicing Catholic, but you don’t have the non-practicing Evangelical. These are people who are interested in Catholic customs, but not in a practice of faith. So, for a politician, it is much more interesting to attract an evangelical with firm convictions than a Catholic ‘by tradition’, since in the second case, faith little interferes in political decisions, while in the first, it is decisive”, summarizes Razzo.

Liberation Theology

The history of Brazil is full of evidence of how close the Catholic Church and the State maintained relations, even after the proclamation of the Republic, when the country stopped adopting Catholicism as its official religion. However, if there was a historical moment when a good part of the clergy – probably the majority – were more explicitly opposed to the government, it happened after the resurgence of the military regime, between the decades of 70 and 50, at the height of the Cold War.

With the intense restriction of individual freedoms and episodes of violence provoked by State agents, a multitude of priests, bishops and faithful were seduced by the so-called liberation theology, an interpretation of the Bible and Catholic doctrine that mixes elements of the traditional faith with Marxist precepts. , reducing the figure of Jesus Christ to that of a socialist revolutionary and using the gospel to foment class struggle. This elaboration was especially useful to leftist groups that used the capillarity of Catholic communities in Brazil to win over the masses and boost their political projects. It was in this context that the Workers’ Party (PT) was born and gained strength.

Several Catholic scholars who try to explain the vertiginous fall of the faithful in recent decades point to the period of dominance of liberation theology as a factor. crucial for the long stampede that lasts until today, since the chances of a believer going to mass to hear about God were enormous, but ending up receiving left-wing ideological discourse. If he didn’t join, he somehow ended up excluded from the community or motivated to leave. “It was a time when being Catholic and getting involved in politics almost always meant belonging to liberation theology. Marxists were very astute and successful at this for a long time,” says Edivan Mota, president of the Thomas More Society, a São Paulo-based lay organization dedicated to fostering Catholic participation in politics and public life.


As he explains, the scenario has only changed in the middle of the decade of 90, when there was the boom of the Charismatic Renewal Católica, whose main exponent at the time was Father Marcelo Rossi. With preaching focused on spiritual realities, similar to the style of Pentecostal evangelicals, the RCC welcomed a crowd of Catholics who were exhausted from so much speech about agrarian reform, workers’ struggle and against American imperialism. The disgust created by liberation theologians was such that they often fell to the other extreme, rejecting any debate on social problems, behavior motivated by the risk of being confused with the “red priests” gang, a pejorative term given by critics to members of the clergy who seemed more faithful to Che Guevara than to Jesus Christ.

“We went from an excessively earthly discourse to an exclusively spiritual one, and so the political question was left aside. There were almost 20 years in this vacuum”, summarizes Mota. The current situation would be an attempt to rescue the Church’s Social Doctrine, but purified of the ideological influences that marked so much of the 20th century and highlighting the civil agendas commonly called pro-life and pro-family. This awakening would be something recent, started about 10 years ago. It is mainly led by members of movements and other ecclesial organizations formed mostly by lay people. Mota cites Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation and the Neocatechumenal Way as examples, but some charismatic communities have also matured over time and today effectively contribute to the formation and political engagement of their members, such as Canção Nova and Shalom.

Federal deputy Enrico Misasi (MDB-SP), 27 years old, is part of this generation that does not deny its catholicity in public life, but tries to detach itself from ideological labels to stick to social doctrine. For him, the Church is prudent in not encouraging the creation of parties that claim to be Catholic, nor in supporting specific candidates. “The Catholic faithful will not see the Church asking them to vote for a certain candidate, to favor a certain party; there is no requirement for politicians and candidates to join a party. Instead, its proper function as a Church, as the Social Doctrine itself says, is to ‘instruct and enlighten the conscience of the faithful, especially those who are dedicated to participating in political life, so that their work is always at the service of the integral promotion of the person and the common good’”, says the parliamentarian who in 2021 was one of the winners of the Thomas More Society award Testimonium Catholico, given to believers who stand out in the political world.

An evidence of how embryonic the reaction is still would be the difference in influence between the Evangelical and Catholic parliamentary fronts in the National Congress. The latter, much less known and rarely featured in the political news. It’s not without reason. Despite of the 206 deputies and nine senators, the front is not even close to the organization, the frequency of activities and the cohesion existing in the group of evangelical colleagues.

Among the members, there are illustrious names, such as the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco (PSD-MG), and others that are surprising, given the militancy directly opposed to the teaching of the Catholic Church on many issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gender ideology. This is the case of communist deputy Orlando Silva (PCdoB-SP) or PT members Zeca Dirceu (PT-PR) and Jorge Solla (PT-BA). They share the list with convinced Bolsonarists, such as Bia Kicis (PL-DF), Catholics who appreciate traditional liturgy, such as Chris Tonietto (PL-RJ) and even famous evangelicals, such as Pastor Marco Feliciano (PL-SP). Yes, he is also one of the signatories of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Mixed Parliamentary Front, which is, in a way, a portrait of how Catholics are acting, as a collectivity, in Brazilian politics. The directions pointed out are so many that the alleged diversity could easily be called confusion.

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