SÃO PAULO – While fallout from Pope Francis’s Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality continues to fuel Catholic debate in the West, arousing disappointment in some quarters and cautious optimism in others, most churchgoers in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic nation, frankly don’t seem to have paid much attention to the whole synodal exercise.
In the opinion of many analysts here, the unique realities of Brazilian culture, and of the Church in the world’s largest Catholic nation, may combine to make the synod seem less relevant to their situation.
At the same time, the problems Catholics may identify in the Church tend to be more connected to pastoral perspectives at this point and not so much with doctrinal issues.
“Most Brazilian Catholics who want some kind of transformation have basically a disagreement with their priest’s pastoral approach. They might want him to be more progressive or more traditionalist, depending on each individual’s political stance. That’s not connected to great reforms,” said Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture.
Ribeiro Neto emphasized that in Brazilian culture, norms don’t define reality.
“Our culture doesn’t give much importance to institutional rules, because life goes on not only under them, but also outside them. Brazilians are characterized by malleability,” he said.
If norms don’t matter so much, there is no special reason why many Brazilians would pay attention to processes designed to debate or reconsider those norms, Ribeiro Neto said.
Indeed, malleability and creativity have been part of ecclesial life in Brazil since colonial times, given that its vast territories historically have been served by far fewer priests than needed.
“If we had enough priests, maybe we would repeat the European church model. But that is not the case,” said German-born Bishop emeritus Franz Merkel of Humaitá, located in Amazonas state.
In his diocese, where he worked till 2020, Merkel said that riverside communities had to come up with unusual ideas in order to deal with the lack of priests.
“Those faraway settlements many times are led by women involved in Catechism,” he said, suggesting that European and western debates over women’s roles in the Church may not seem so urgent in such a context.
The local church structure was gradually transformed so as to let lay Catholics take part in ecclesial decisions, Merkel said. That was a common process not only in the Amazonian church, but in many regions of the Brazilian countryside.
In the cities, ecclesial life is often connected to Church movements which can operate with significant autonomy, so people already feel they can take part in necessary changes.
Recently, the Archdiocese of São Paulo promoted its synod, said Ribeiro Neto, who took part in it.
“There was no conflict in the whole work. People with more radical views who wished to pass controversial resolutions simply didn’t have the power to mobilize the others to follow them,” he said.
That seems to be the reality in Brazil as a whole.
Traditionalist groups have been vocal on social media, criticizing the Synod on Synodality as a way of setting the ground for unacceptable dogmatic changes, while progressive Catholic groups hailed the promise of a more horizontal and democratic Church.
Yet both sides’ capacity to attract ordinary Catholics to their causes seems limited.
“Curiously, both [sides] think that enhancing the participation of lay people is something that can transform the Church. Progressives want it, while traditionalists fear it,” said Ribeiro Neto.
Rodrigo Coppe Caldeira, a religious studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, argued that the debate concerning the Synod in Brazil has been mostly based on moral aspects connected to the pontiff’s statements or to the general discussions in Rome.
“Those groups usually select a sentence or two that can be linked to their own agenda and then magnify that element on social media,” he told Crux.
As far as the traditionalists are concerned, Caldeira said their ability to galvanize Catholic opinion has been somewhat hampered by former President Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat in 2022 and scandals related to his administration that have been amplified by the press and by left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s team.
“At the same time, parts of the Charismatic Catholic Renewal have recently approached traditionalists, something that increased the criticism of Pope Francis,” said Caldeira, who studies Catholic conservatism.
Those groups suspect any initiative introduced by Francis, who is seen as one of the leaders of the globalists, he added.
Frederico Viotti, a spokesman for Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute – named after the traditionalist Brazilian Catholic leader who founded the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – told Crux that his group repudiates the Synod on Synodality for its “wrongful principles.”
“The idea that lay people have a prophetic charisma that makes them able to interpret the Holy Spirit’s message not through the hierarchy but from a horizontal perspective is subversive for the Church,” Viotti affirmed.
Following de Oliveira’s writings on the process of “Church demonarchization,” in which the traditional Catholic structure is abandoned for an alleged democratization, Viotti said that the synod has that very intention.
“That is rather negative for Catholicism, because one gets the impression that God and his message are not immutable. Something that has always been a sin suddenly can become a legitimate act,” Viotti said.
He said that lay people have always been listened to in the Church, even becoming advisors to the Pope, such as Saint Catherine of Siena.
“But now they are being used to subvert the Church’s order,” he declared.
On the opposite side, progressive Catholics have been excited about the new possibilities created by Pope Francis. Eduardo Brasileiro, who coordinates the Economy of Francesco movement in Brazil – where it adopted the name Economy of Francesco and Clare – celebrates the fact that the pontiff is trying to “establish a more horizontal structure in the Church.”
“The problem is that clericalism is strong and the episcopal conferences have become institutionally rigid and mostly worry about managing the structure,” he told Crux.
Brasileiro believes that the increased participation of the youth in ecclesial life will lead to relevant transformations in Catholicism.
“There is a new wave of popular movements formed by young people and allying to Pope Francis in many fronts,” he said.
Yet for most grassroots Catholics in Brazil, such debates often seem fairly remote from their day-to-day realities, making the synod a conversation mostly for insiders and activists.
“The debates concerning the synod draw the attention of ideological segments which want deeper institutional changes, while the moderate majority remains mostly out of the process,” Ribeiro Neto said.