In Brazil, the plan to replace prison chaplains with ecumenical radio stations is arousing the ire of the Catholic hierarchy. The Church sees in it the mark of “evangelical” Protestantism, whose influence has grown steadily since Jair Bolsonaro came to power.
The Catholic Church has taken a stand against the plan to replace chaplains unveiled in the spring of 2021 by the National Prison Department (Depen).
In a note made public last April, the Depen welcomed the “positive experiences” carried out in penitentiary establishments: ecumenical programs have been broadcast for several weeks in prisons, on a closed circuit, in order to “satisfy and respect all forms of religions or beliefs.”
Ultimately, the goal of this new kind of spiritual assistance is to make prison chaplains disappear: this is unacceptable for the Brazilian episcopate, which reacted at the beginning of May by way of a letter sent by the Prison Pastoral Commission, to Sandro Abel Sousa Barradas, Director of Depen.
“Prisoners have a right to spiritual assistance, and this does not consist only of preaching. Catholics need to receive the sacraments, which is made impossible by the radio system put in place,” explains Fr. Gianfranco Graziola, theological advisor of the Prison Pastoral Commission.
For the episcopate’s representative in this case, the use of means of communication to disseminate Catholic celebrations should be considered an exceptional measure, but “it cannot replace the Mass and the other sacraments.”
For his part, Antônio Funari Filho, president of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, regrets that the Depen project does not recognize the importance of religious assistance in the process of the rehabilitation of prisoners.
“Prisons should not only be a place of punishment, but they should also help inmates to change. Religious assistance is a fundamental element in this process. Excluding chaplains from prisons is not only bad news for prisoners, but for society as a whole,” the lawyer stressed.
Worse, the project is “aberrant” because it also violates the Constitution of the country, which guarantees spiritual assistance and religious services organized within penitentiary establishments, specifies Fr. Graziola, who considers that it is “certainly possible to withdraw the project.”
Furthermore, adds the priest, Brazil's concordat with the Vatican grants the Catholic Church the right to provide spiritual assistance to prisoners.
The United Nations set of minimum rules for the treatment of detainees also states that detainees must have the right to contact a qualified representative of their religion.
But no one is fooled, the reasons behind this project are, firstly, a way to avoid monitoring and external control in the prison system; and secondly, a way to extend the influence of evangelical Protestant sects, desperate to oust the Church.
Moreover, as Fr. Graziola points out, the broadcasting of radio programs in prisons benefits in a very singular way the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a Protestant association which owns large television and radio networks, and who has political ties with the head of state, Jair Bolsonaro.