SÃO PAULO, Brazil —A recent visit of a member of President Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet to the headquarters of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) may not be enough to heal the sometimes turbulent relationship between the conservative government and the Catholic Church in the South American country, according to leading experts.
On Feb. 19, Damares Alves – the Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights – met in the capital Brasilia with two of the bishops’ conference’s vice-presidents, Archbishop Jaime Spengler of Porto Alegre and Bishop Mário Antônio da Silva of Roraima, and the secretary-general of the CNBB, Auxiliary Bishop Joel Portella Amado of Rio de Janeiro.
The discussions centered on governmental programs for women, children, and young people. Alves, who is an Evangelical pastor, was the first member of the government to hold a work meeting with the Catholic Church, over a year since the rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro – who cites Donald Trump as in influence – took office.
The government and Church have clashed on several issues, including gun laws, the environment, the destruction of rainforest to expand agriculture and the protection of indigenous rights.
The relationship became especially fraught in light of last October’s Vatican Synod on the Amazon region, most of which is located within Brazil. Several government officials expressed concerns that the meeting could impugn the country’s sovereignty.
In 2019, Bolsonaro and members of his cabinet acknowledged that the government had been “monitoring” the preparatory works for the synod.
According to media reports, the government felt the themes that would be discussed at the encounter in Rome, including the protection of the rainforest and the rights of indigenous peoples, was part of a “leftist agenda.”
Alves’s meeting was seen by many as an effort to heal the wounds between the government and the Church.
“Considering all members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet, Minister Alves is probably the person who has most affinities with the Church,” said Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.
“She has several Catholic aides and has developed throughout the years a kind of non-ideological social work,” Ribeiro Neto told Crux.
According to Ribeiro Neto, “bolsonarists” are mostly known for the defense of individual rights, which has sometimes caused difficulties in their dialogue with the Church, an institution that continually promotes a more communal view of the common good.
He said Alves “has a kind of religious perspective which is equally directed to the common good.”
The Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo reported that Alves had been strengthening ties with CNBB since last year, when she met with priests connected to the conference several times.
In December, she was part of a delegation of Latin American first ladies and women government officials that travelled to the Vatican. After meeting with Pope Francis, she said she was “delighted with him” and praised his commitment to the “building of bridges” between the Church and other institutions.
Ribeiro Neto said Bolsonaro is trying to build bridges after several of his “inopportune statements” and “aggressive gestures” have shocked the international community and now seem to be now disturbing Brazil’s economic recovery.
“Bolsonaro is not changing his discourse to his constituency, but he probably wants to avoid unnecessary damage at this point. So, he’s positioning his ministers with strong capacity for dialogue to rebuild relations,” he said.
João Décio Passos, a professor of Religion Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, said the meeting between Alves and CNBB can represent a “relief of political tensions.”
“It can work as a sign of the government’s and of the Church’s good will in future occasions,” he told Crux.
Nevertheless, the results of Alves’s overtures to the Catholic Church are unclear.
“Surely there won’t be joint statements concerning the indigenous peoples’ rights, for example. Dialogues that begin after conflicts take some time to be fruitful,” Ribeiro Neto said.
Passos said that despite the tentative move to improve the relationship, the ideological distance between the Bolsonaro administration and CNBB will continue to exist. “I don’t see effective partnerships coming in the future,” he said.
Indeed, there seems to be an historic divide between the Brazilian Catholic Church and Bolsonaro. The president is a Catholic, but his wife is an Evangelical, and it is the Evangelical Church that provides most of his base, and many of his key political allies.
Part of this reflects the changing demographic reality of the country: In 1970, 90 percent of Brazilians said they were Catholic; that number is now less than 65 percent. Evangelicals and other Protestants now make up nearly a quarter of the population, reflecting trends seen in other parts of Latin America.
Bolsonaro was also an ardent supporter of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship in Brazil and has been a longtime critic of members of the clergy and Catholic movements that opposed the regime, usually identifying them with the country’s left-wing political forces.
The conflict with the Catholic bishops heated up during his presidential campaign in 2018, when he said in a video that the Indigenous Missionary Council – the CNBB’s commission to assist indigenous peoples in Brazil – and the CNBB itself were the “rotten part” of the Church.
He was talking about what he saw as the illegal occupation of lands by indigenous groups in the country and accused the Catholic Church of encouraging such actions.
In August, during a major wave of wildfires in the Amazon, the CNBB released a statement demanding “immediate actions” to put an end to the environmental catastrophe. Without a direct mention to his name, the letter criticized the president’s behavior. During the crisis, Bolsonaro had accused NGOs of starting the fires, without evidence. CNBB’s document said that “this is not the time for insanities and absurdities in judgment or in speech.”
In November, Bolsonaro posted on his Twitter account a video in which a lion is surrounded by hyenas trying to kill him. The lion is identified as Bolsonaro; over the head of the hyenas, there are logos and symbols of political parties and civil organizations. One of them carried the CNBB’s logo.
Just a few days after Alves met with the CNBB officials, the prospect of a closer dialogue between the Bolsonaro administration and the Church was once again disrupted after the president spread a video on social media calling for people to attend a protest against Congress.
The call caused outrage in the country and many institutions and organizations expressed concerns about an apparent attack on democracy endorsed by the president.
The CNBB secretary general on Feb. 26 declared that the Brazilian Church only supports “initiatives which preserve democracy.”
“Any other [initiative] will be heard, understood and maybe [judicially] contested by us,” Portella Amado told journalists.
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