SÃO PAULO – Since the 2018 general elections that put President Jair Bolsonaro into office, Brazil has been dealing with a growing atmosphere of political polarization.

Now that the Oct. 2 elections are near – Bolsonaro faces former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – the profound division in the country has reached even the Catholic Church, with many members of the clergy openly supporting individual candidates.

The two major candidates are both Catholic, but many of their supporters often question the faith of the other side. The conservative Bolsonaro, a retired Army captain who based much of his campaign on that of Donald Trump, is married to a Baptist woman and has strong alliances with Evangelical Christians – he was even re-baptized by an Evangelical pastor in the waters of River Jordan in 2016.

Da Silva, formerly a labor leader, is the founder of the left-wing Workers’ Party ( PT), which in the 1980s gathered Liberation Theology activists, members of labor unions, and Marxists. Conservative Christians have always emphasized PT’s historic ties with Cuba and other Communist regimes, in an attempt to discredit Lula’s professed faith.

The religiosity of the two candidates has become a central element in the current dispute, to a greater extent due to Bolsonaro’s strategy. The current president’s wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, has been an active part of his campaign and is claiming the election is a clear choice between good and evil.

She and many of the president’s Pentecostal allies have been claiming that a victory for Da Silva could result in the persecution of Christians in Brazil, pointing to the Nicaraguan regime’s targeting of the Catholic Church. They also point to PT’s alleged liberal agenda, which could include items like the decriminalization of drugs and abortion.

In the politically charged atmosphere, Bishop Devair Araújo da Fonseca of Piracicaba, in São Paulo State, said clerics should never publicly endorse candidates or tell their flock who they are voting for.

“As ministers, we should contribute to the formation of the people’s consciousness, helping them to make their own decisions based on the message of the Gospel,” he told Crux.

Da Fonseca stressed that the church’s social doctrine is greater than the political division between left and right and that Christ’s project for mankind is larger than any ideology.

“No ideology can prefigurate the Kingdom of God, because all ideologies are humanly limited. A person who is open to the project of God does not advocate abortion nor the loosening of gun control, is not inclined to the left nor to the right,” he said.

Nevertheless, a few priests are claiming their political allegiances are part of the Gospel message.

Father Pablo Henrique de Faria, a vicar in the city of Iporá, in Goiás state, has told his parishioners not to vote for Lula da Silva.

“We are going through a very serious moment in our country’s history. It is easy to realize that the most important points of the Catholic moral are at risk,” he told Crux.

De Faria explained that he has been focusing on moral issues precisely to avoid ideological matters concerning the current candidates.

“We have been told to avoid expressing our political views, but as a priest I cannot overlook the universal values of the church, especially when it comes to abortion,” he added.

During a conference in April, Da Salive said that many poor women die in Brazil during clandestine attempts of abortion, while rich women can “go to Paris or Berlin in order to have an abortion procedure.” He argued that it should be a “matter of health care policy and that everyone should have the right to do it without shame.”

Currently, abortion is only legal in Brazil in the case of rape, if the pregnancy can endanger the mother’s health, or if the fetus suffers from anencephaly, a birth defect affecting the brain and skull.

Da Saliva’s statement caused controversy, especially among Christians, and two days later he declared in an interview that he is personally against abortion.

Geraldo Alckmin, his running mate, is a devout Catholic politician with strong connections to conservative church groups. He has declared in the past that he is against abortion.

De Faria also mentions other risks, like the promotion of “gender ideology” by PT and the possible persecution of Christians, “something that is happening now in Nicaragua.”

“That is clearly a war between good and evil. I cannot understand how segments of the church can support that [PT],” he said.

He claimed that most churchgoers agree with his views and that he has not had any problem connected to the debate of political themes in his parish.

Many priests seem to have a similar stance. Last week, Bolsonaro attended a Mass in Brasília and was welcomed by many supporters at the church, who cheered and shouted “mito” (“legend”), a popular nickname among his supporters.

The priest said during his homily that God saved the president’s life four years ago – after he was stabbed during a rally – because “there is a mission that still has to be accomplished.”

He also prayed for Nicaragua’s Catholics and asked God to “rid us of communism, of that fake socialism” and “issues like abortion and gender ideology.” After Mass, Bolsonaro met with dozens of priests in the sacristy.

On the other side, a group of 450 priests last week released a letter warning the people not to re-elect the president.

The authors wrote, “as pastors of the people of God” they had to alert the citizens “not to make the same mistake” of four years ago, which led to a “catastrophe”.

The letter then lists 10 reasons why voters should not re-elect Bolsonaro, accusing him of religious manipulation; hate speech; fake news; mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; an increasing level of poverty; deforestation; corruption; attacks on the Supreme Court; attempts to place the electoral process in doubt; and signs of authoritarianism and fascism.

“A conscientious disciple of Jesus cannot re-elect a man who with words and acts demonstrates that he is the opposite of everything that Jesus is and announces. May God illuminate us so we can be faithful to the Lord of life,” the letter read.

One of the document’s signatories, Father Paulo Sérgio Bezerra of Sao Paulo, rejects the ideal of neutrality among priests.

“To be neutral in a situation of calamity like the one in Brazil right now is to consent with everything that is happening, with the people starving to death,” he told Crux.

In charge of a parish in the Eastern part of the city that comprises 11 slums, Bezerra said that he has been witnessing how the living conditions of the poor have declined during Bolsonaro’s tenure.

“I visit the people’s houses and ask them to see their fridge. They usually do not have anything inside it, just cold water,” he said.

He argued that during Da Silva’s two terms from 2003-2010, “things were far from being perfect, but the people were not starving.”

“They are always talking about communism and abortion in order to incentivize fundamentalism. They know people are vulnerable to those issues. But they know those are lies. Lula governed for eight years and nothing like that ever happened,” Bezerra said.

He said that most of his parishioners repudiate Bolsonaro’s administration, but in general they “lack critical thinking and many times end up voting for any candidate without reflection.”

“That is why I have to be direct with them. People have been misguided by fake news and all sorts of political manipulation by religious leaders and politicians who only want money. We cannot remain neutral in a situation like that,” the priest said.

According to the latest Genial/Quaest poll released on Wednesday, Lula is leading Bolsonaro 42 percent to 34 percent; however, that is a slight fall from last week, where he was leading 44 percent to 34 percent.