Brazil and Religion

To what extent has Catholicism lost its traditional strength in Brazil and how does this change a native Brazilian’s perspective on world affairs, particularly in respect to religious world view?             Brazil, like many other latin American countries, has a an extremely intricate and complicated culture, due to a turbulent history of immigration and colonialism.  The native south Americans that lived in that area before interactions with Europeans have fused, forcibly in most cases, with the successive waves of oppressors, immigrants and missionaries.  The predominantly catholic missionaries that have been common and powerful in Brazil since Europe first heard of the land have had a lasting influence on the culture of the country as it evolved from a slave labor plantation to a relatively stable industrial nation. With influx of new immigrants in the twentieth century, however, the traditionally strong hold of the Roman Catholic Church has eroded and or has been assimilated into the traditionally non catholic cultures of the people.            Before examination the present role of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil, it is important to first understand the historical roots of the culture, as this will give clues to the world view of Brazilians in general.  The land that would later become Brazil was first “discovered” by the Portuguese in 1500 and colonization began a mere fifty years afterwards.   After most of the interior of the area had been colonized enough so that no other European country could lay claim t o the land, Portugal began building sugar plantations and importing African slaves to Brazil (Rodrigues, 1967, xi). The influx of African slaves, paired with the native susceptibility to European disease and gunshots, radically changed the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants. This change also brought together many different faiths.            Since Brazil was under the control of European powers until 1889, when the people proclaimed a republic, Catholicism was the official religion of the country for about 300 years. During this period of 1500-1889, it is safe to say that conversion to Catholicism was not optional in most cases, particularly for slaves and Indians without a recognized system of worship. There was no real distinction between church and state and as a result a productive member of society would have to be catholic. The official hold of the Roman Catholic Church eclipsed with the proclamation of a republic and allowed for the open emergence of syncretic religious practices. Despite tolerance to different religions Catholicism remained the predominant and most influential religion. In addition, “…the predominance of Catholics among the immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the lasting predominance of that religion” (Brazil, 2006).       Despite the continuing predominance of Catholicism in Brazil, there are several other commonly practiced religions as well as forms of Catholicism that have among their roots ties to African and native South American traditions and rituals. For example, Brazil has the largest group of Japanese descendants outside of Japan and so Buddhism and Shintoism are significant religions in certain areas (Brazilian Embassy,1994 p.15).  What is most significant in regards to Catholicism and its impact on culture is the fact that Brazilian Catholicism is very different in practice to the kind practiced in Italy            The observation of Roman Catholic practices can be drawn along financial lines more than any other division.  Brazil has a high power distance aspect of culture and as such, the rich practice their faith differently than the poor, though both practices could be considered a form of Catholicism. Generally the upper class goes to church and participates mainly for social reasons.  An upper class person is also more likely to practice Roman Catholicism rather than a hybrid of African American traditions and catholic saints (Figueiredo, Jeanenne).  The lower class, particularly in small towns and rural areas, tend to take church practices and doctrines very seriously while also incorporating African and native Brazilian religious practices.            The extent to which Brazilians follows the priestly doctrines can also be looked at from a generational perspective. This is to say that the younger generations do not adhere to these doctrines as closely as their elders do.  This currently causes some problems as the elder generations strongly disapprove of the increasingly modern youth practices.  Pre-marital sex and birth control are hotly contested issues between generations (Figueiredo, Carmen).  This is a good example of how the Brazilian worldview is changing with respect to religion. While it is clear that the youth are still greatly influenced by their religious background, increased exposure to other cultures, specifically North American and European, have eroded some of the traditionally strong religious values.  This is also significant with respect to the representation of culture, as 62 percent of the population is under 29 years old (Brazilian Embassy, 1994 p.9).            One of the most interesting and significant reasons why the Catholic influence is receding is an increasingly open worship of religions thought to have been wiped out by catholic influences.  What actually happened to these native religions was that there were practiced in secret or incorporated enough catholic ideas to fool the colonialists and dictators.  African slaves and native Brazilians retained many of the practices and religions while simply changing the names of the old gods to a catholic equivalent (Durand, 2005 p.2).  Due to this historical secrecy, many of these religious groups require an intense initiation. Ironically, the initiations use methods similar to Catholics during a period of atonement such as fasting and meditation on hurtful acts (Figueiredo, Carmen).             Practices can often be traced back to a region of Africa or brazil itself, helping to further identify the cultural influences of these religions, the most well known being Candomble.  Candomble is the religion of the Yoruba slaves, descended from Africans abducted in the areas of Nigeria and Benin (Brazilian Embassy, 1994 p.15).  Capoeira, a widely practiced ritual dance also has its origins in secret religious practice.  Originally a style of combat used to resolve conflicts in the African region of Angola, the music and dance part of the ritual was a smokescreen for the slaves’ beliefs and internal conflicts (Figueiredo, Carmen).  The influence of these religions is widespread in Brazil and while most are a combination of native beliefs and catholic doctrine, the practitioners see them as native religions instead of Catholic derivatives.  This is important with respect to the Brazilian world view because it adds a unique cultural element to a country that is generally considered a devout patron of the Roman Catholic Church.          The number of Catholics in Brazil is declining from 90% of the population in 1980 to 83% in 1991 and 67% today (Winfield, 2005 p.1).  There are many reasons for this trend, the largest of which can not be measured or accurately interpreted; Globalization.  The upper class in Brazil often sends their children to study abroad and when these individuals return, they bring concepts common in some cultures but alien in theirs.  As the upper class is already in a position of influence, they are more willing and able to spread these non traditional values.           Despite this decline in numbers, the Catholic Church and its representatives still exert a strong influence over the people of Brazil.  All Catholic holidays are national holidays, most people go to church every Sunday and observe lent, take communion etc (Figueiredo, Jeanenne).  Church representatives still exert power over the political process, even if they have to go on a hunger strike to get people behind them(Brasilia, 2005 p.1).              The influence of the Roman Catholic Church is receding because of increased intercultural communication, the reemergence of native religions, and the general rejection of certain key doctrines such as premarital sex and birth control.  This is, however, analogous to spilling a drop out of a reservoir because the religion still has an overwhelming presence in the region.  Catholicism was omnipresent during the creation of what is now Brazil and can not be erased or even eroded to a large degree because it was a tremendously strong player in the formation of the region.  This idea is important because its helps us understand the culture as a catholic culture, the religion being infused with the country’s history and permeating every aspect of culture for hundreds of years.                                                                           Works CitedBrazilian Embassy (1994). Brazil in Brief. Washington, DC: Cultural Sector Brasilia (2005, October 7). Brazil Bishop ends hunger strike over river. Agence France Presse—English. Brazil. ( document.write(new Date().getFullYear()); 2006). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved document.write(mm[new Date().getMonth()][1]); March  document.write(new Date().getDate()); 25, document.write(new Date().getFullYear()); 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online  Durand, Irmin (2005, October 21). Brazil still worships its African Gods. Agence France Presse—English. Figueiredo, Jeanine (22 yrs old). Interview. By Alex Churchill. March 25, 2006 Figueiredo, Carmen (mid forties). Interview. By Alex Churchill. March 25, 2006 Rodrigues, Jose Honorio (1967). The Brazilians. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. Winfield, Nicole (2005, October 8). Brazilian cardinal wonders how long Brazil, Latin America will be catholic. Associated Press Worldstream.  


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