Brazil: Risky Bet for the Church

September 21, 2021
The sign reads: Bolsonaro is an evangelical Taliban

As there is an ongoing battle between the top of the Brazilian state and the judiciary, the celebration of Independence Day on September 7, 2021, took on a special character, with tens of thousands of Jair Bolsonaro supporters demonstrating throughout the country. On the same day, the Catholic Church encouraged the opposition to the president to take to the streets as well.

During the summer of 2021, Jair Bolsonaro - largely the loser against his declared competitor, ex-President Ignacio Lula, in the event of an electoral duel - no longer spares his criticisms of the Supreme Court, in particular two of its judges, Luis Roberto Barroso and Alexandre de Moraes, who brought several legal actions against the head of state.

For their part, supporters of the current Brazilian president say there is a conspiracy of certain elites against his re-election.

Bolsonaro's supporters rallied in tens of thousands across the country on September 7, on the national holiday, to defend the man they hail by the name of “Mito,” the Myth. In a highly charged atmosphere, “Mito” appeared, perched on a chariot and shouting to his many devotees: “Only God will take me out of power. I will never be taken prisoner!”

In the procession which running in the streets of Sao Paolo, the crosses of the Evangelical Protestants mingled with bikers in leather jackets and the fatigues of the reserve soldiers who had come to acclaim their leader. There were also monarchists who came with the imperial banner, seeing in the current head of state a "transition" to a “feudal and Catholic, pre-Enlightenment” monarchy.

The atmosphere was quite different a little further, where a second demonstration was taking place at the same time, but this one against the president, to the call of the Cry of the Excluded association.

This leftist movement - which has marched every September 7 in Brazilian cities since 1994 - was determined not to be robbed of the spotlight at the end of summer, finding unexpected and strong support from the Catholic Church. “The Church gives us all its support,” gloated Alderon Costa, one of the leaders of Cry of the Excluded.

A few days earlier, in an official statement from the Brazilian Bishops' Conference (CNBB), Msgr. Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, Archbishop of Belo Horizonte, criticized the atmosphere of “rage and intolerance” which, according to him, reigns in a country where “peace is not built with guns,” alluding to Bolsonaro's efforts to ease restrictions on guns.

And Archbishop Azevedo attacked the head of state: “Do not be convinced by those who attack the legislative and judiciary offices. The existence of three powers impedes the existence of totalitarianism.” 

Fr. Antonio Manzatto, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, thinks that the Church is now aware of the risks that the Bolsonaro administration would represent for democracy: “His project since the campaign was to carry out a coup, using the armed forces to silence the opposition,” he told the Crux news agency.

Msgr. Leonardo Steiner, Archbishop of Manaus, told Crux that he was delighted that Cry for the Excluded “is now gaining strength again with so many exclusions that our people are suffering from.”

Same story with Mgr José Valdeci Mendes, bishop of Brejo, also at the head of the CNBB’s Transformative Social Action Pastoral Commission, who claims that the initiatives set up by Cry of the Excluded aim at “increasing popular participation in politics,” which in his eyes is “more important now than ever.”

This commitment of the hierarchy in what looks like an anti-Bolsonaro crusade may come as a surprise, at a time when the Church is losing ground, particularly in relation to Protestantism.

Admittedly, the current Brazilian chief executive is far from flawless in his management of public affairs, with a catastrophic record a few months before new general elections, whether in the fields of health or the economy.

But Jair Bolsonaro, notwithstanding the excesses that can be attributed to this exalted “evangelical,” always defended the culture of life in his country, with a vigor and a clarity that one would like to see shared by its Catholic pastors.

Moreover, among those who seek to bring it down by invoking the rule of law, there are many who, at home and abroad, are in fact seeking to impose on the largest country in Latin America progressive ideologies which are triumphing in many Western countries: just consider what has happened in neighboring Argentina.

Thus, indiscriminately supporting the rebellion against Jair Bolsonaro in the name of the primacy of pastoral and social action could turn out to be a fatal miscalculation for the Church.