ROME – At a time when they are promoting a greater participation of the laity in the activities of the Catholic Church and in the country’s political life, the bishops of Brazil are beginning to feel the need to adapt to a new reality: Committed lay Catholics who are outspoken on social media, even against the bishops themselves.

The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) gathered for its general assembly in Aparecida April 11 – 20.

Although the central theme was actually the formation of priests – an official document on this has been sent to the Vatican for approval – the bishops also expressed concern about political polarization in Brazil and fake news, especially on social media.

In their “message to the People of God,” they recognized that even the episcopal conference has become the target of attacks by individuals or groups that oppose its line of action: “We live in a time of politicization and polarization that generate controversy over social networks and reach the CNBB. We want to promote respectful dialogue, to stimulate and grow our communion in faith, for only remaining united in Christ can we experience the joy of being missionary disciples.”

Complaints and reactions

Criticism on the internet is a still a new reality for the Brazilian bishops. Most of them are from an older generation, and not accustomed to dealing with the new media.

It has become common, for example, to see videos on Whatsapp or Facebook showing liturgical abuses that happen in parishes throughout Brazil. In a recent example, the Blessed Sacrament was carried into a Church by a drone. Often, this criticism is directed at the CNBB, accused of being unconcerned about the liturgy – although it does not have direct power over individual dioceses.

Since the beginning of this year, the CNBB has found itself in the middle of a series of more serious online attacks – most of them launched on social networks by layman Bernardo Küster.

In several videos, he has criticized the closeness between left-wing political parties and Catholic Church members during the meeting of ecclesial base communities in Londrina, southern Brazil.

In February, Küster also accused the bishops of Brazil of using their National Solidarity Fund to support institutions that have initiatives contrary to the Church’s social teaching, such as abortion.

This fund is made of money collected annually in parishes throughout the country as a “concrete gesture” of charity during Lent.

In a statement, the CNBB denied these allegations.

“Contrary to social media reports, CNBB did not fund any ‘abortion NGO’ or ‘terrorist group’ projects,” the statement said.

Another current difficulty faced by the Brazilian bishops is the case of Bishop José Ronaldo Ribeiro of Formosa, in central Brazil.

The bishop was arrested on charges of illegally diverting diocesan funds. According to the indictment, he embezzled around $580,000.

However, Archbishop Paulo Mendes Peixoto, appointed by Pope Francis as Apostolic Administrator of Formosa after Ribeiro’s arrest, has said the diocese does not have that much money, and the accusations seem to be baseless.

All of these issues have challenged the public’s image of Brazil’s episcopal conference.

In their message, the bishops’ said they have been serving the Brazilian society, “guiding its activity through the Gospel and the Magisterium, particularly through the Social Teaching of the Church.”

According to them, “it is not possible to understand the Church simply from sociological, political and ideological categories, for it is, in history, the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Political, but not partisan

Although often criticized by Catholic conservatives for identifying with the country’s political left, the bishops who wrote the “message to the people of God” insist that the institution does not adopt a partisan line.

“The CNBB does not identify with any ideology or political party. Ideologies lead to two harmful errors: On one hand, to turn Christianity into a kind of NGO, without taking into account grace and the interior union with Christ; on the other hand, to view with suspicion the social commitment of others and considering it superficial and mundane (Gaudete et Exsultate, n 100-101),” the message said.

Mentioning the current “Year of the Laity” in the Brazilian Church, the bishops ask the faithful to place ecclesial communion above all else and, in addition, to practice freedom of expression with responsibility. And they ask for more respect, because they are representatives of Christ in the world.

“We call on all the faithful to live the integrality of faith in ecclesial communion, building a society imbued with the values of the Kingdom of God. For this, freedom of expression and responsible dialogue are indispensable,” they said. “They must, however, be guided by truth, fortitude, prudence, reverence and love to those who, by virtue of their office, represent the person of Christ.”

They quote Pope Francis in saying that members of the Church should favor communion rather than “isolate, divide and oppose.”

In a message about Brazilian presidential elections, which will take place in October this year, the bishops call for more attention to social media’s ‘fake news,’ which they say is a risk to democracy.

The president of the episcopal conference, Cardinal Sergio Da Rocha, told the press that the CNBB can certainly comment on social issues in the country, but it does not adopt a partisan stance.

“We do not have political parties or candidates of our own. We are not and we do not want to be parties or treated as such. We are an organism of the Church that aims at communion and ecclesial mission. And to fulfill this mission we guide the faithful for their participation in social life,” said the cardinal.

For Da Rocha, Catholics should actively participate in the political life of the country.

“But that requires criteria. Social Teaching is a precious source that the lay faithful need to know more and more,” he said.

“We want to put it into practice more and more, so that the mission of the Church, that is evangelizing, will never be distorted. We need to experience faith not only within the church building, at the time of the liturgy, but in the daily life of society, and even in public spaces,” the cardinal continued.

In a message to the Bishops of Brazil read by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, Francis hoped that “the Brazilian prelates do not lack the necessary gifts of discernment and communion to face the challenges that Brazil presents to them today.”

It is necessary to “help the laity to live always in tune with their pastors to be protagonists of the call to be more and more a Church on the move,” said the Nuncio.