High tensions in the run-up to the runoff elections held on October 30th spilled over into the Church and pulpit in Brazil as Jair Bolsonaro courted the Catholic vote.
The following article was published in the November-December 2022 issue of NewsNotes.
“We deplore, at this moment of the electoral campaign, the intensification of the exploitation of faith and religion to garner votes in the second round,” wrote the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) in an open letter about the then-approaching second round of elections for president and some governors held October 30th. Former President Lula da Silva narrowly defeated Bolsonaro by a 1.8% margin. The presidential campaign was especially tense with both sides accusing the other of being an existential threat. While there have always been political divisions with the Brazilian Church´s hierarchy, this election has intensified those divisions and spread among the faithful more than ever before.
The arguments in favor of each candidate should sound familiar to readers in the U.S. “As candidate Lula publicly defends questions that are condemned by Catholic morals like decriminalizing abortion, gender ideology, and socialism… it is natural that a faithful Catholic prays for the reelection of President Bolsonaro,” said Pedro Affonseca, leader of the Dom Bosco Center. In an open letter a group of Brazilian bishops made their preference clear without names: “… there is no room for neutrality when it comes to deciding about two projects for Brazil, one democratic and the other authoritarian; one committed to the defense of life, starting with the impoverished, the other committed to the ‘economy that kills’ (Pope Francisco, Evangelii Gaudium - The Joy of the Gospel, 53); one that takes care of education, health, work, food, culture, the other that despises public policies because it despises the poor.”
According to recent surveys, while evangelical voters, who represent 31 percent of the population, favored Bolsonaro 60 percent versus 32 percent for Lula, Catholics representing 50 percent of the population favored Lula 56 to 38 percent. For this reason, the president focused especially on winning the Catholic vote for the second round, but perhaps not in the best way.
On October 8, he appeared at an annual celebration of Our Lady of Nazareth, considered to be the largest Catholic celebration in the world, uninvited. The celebration is a river pilgrimage with thousands of boats participating. Bolsonaro rode in a Navy boat with two local politicians from his party. The Archdiocese quickly released a note lamenting his distractive presence and making it clear that they had not invited the president or any other politician to the normally apolitical event.
On October 12 he went to the celebration of Our Lady of the Apparition, the country´s patron saint, in the national basilica in Sao Paulo. The celebration entails multiple Masses and events throughout the day. This visit was planned by the Dom Bosco Center and announced to the public ahead of time. This changed the character of what is usually a quiet, reflective event. Many Bolsonaro supporters went not for the religious celebration but to see the president, wearing shirts of the national soccer team, a symbol of support for Bolsonaro. Others came dressed in red to show their support for Lula. Arguments ensued and reporters were harassed by some Bolsonaro supporters. While a Mass was taking place in the basilica, Bolsonaro rode on top of a car surrounded by fans as if it were a campaign stop. The president participated in another Mass that day but thrice refused to take Communion when offered.
More concerning has been the increase in aggression toward priests who support Lula. Throughout the country there are reports of parishioners harassing priests during and after Masses. Homilies preaching to support the poor and to avoid violence are interpreted by some Bolsonaro supporters to be an attack on the president. Father Zezinho, famous for singing religious songs on several CDs, closed his website until after the election because of “offenses against the Pope, against bishops, against me, with slurs and bad language”. In Ceara, two priests suffered so much from harassment and threats that they were placed in the state program of protection for human rights defenders.
Some are concerned that these divisions may have a lasting, detrimental effect on the Church. “The Catholic Church… is a hierarchy. It is not equipped to deal with direct contestation between the faithful or between the clerics caused by political motives,” said anthropologist Regina Novaes. Yet others like Cardinal Leonardo Steiner believe the conflicts will not have lasting effects on the Church. “The Catholic Church is a millennial institution. We have been through much more complicated issues than this. I believe that after the elections, the situation will normalize.”§
Faith in action: Read the letter released by the Brazilian Bishops at https://bit.ly/MOGC-BrazilBishops
Photo of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bolivia by Tutz Dias publicly licensed by Unsplash.