Students and scholars of Latin America are quite familiar with the progressive role that a sector of the Brazilian Catholic Church played in the opposition to the military-civilian regime that ruled the country for more than two decades. In 1964, the Church hierarchy had supported the ouster of the Goulart government. Half a decade later, leading figures, such as then Archbishops Dom Hélder Câmara of Recife and Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, used the pulpit to denounce the use of torture and repression. Liberation theology and the turn toward a ministry to the poor represented an institution that had moved from being a loyal backer of the status quo to a serious agent of social change. Lay organizations such as the Ecclesiastic Base Communities interpreted the Gospel as a call to social activism. The Brazilian Church came to symbolize a larger transformation that appeared to be taking place in the Latin American Catholic Church as a whole. Brazilian clerics seemed to lead the way.
What are the roots of the seismic shift that occurred in the continent's largest church? How did an institution that had found numerous ways to forge a successful long-term concordat with the State over the course of its history become an outspoken voice of the oppressed? What transformations took place among the men who had dedicated their lives to serving the Church at a time when modern, liberal, and sometimes even radical thinking crept into Catholic teachings? How did these changes affect the emotional and psychological demands on clergy who began to question age-old traditions such as celibacy, discipline, and obedience as the Church confronted secular society?
Kenneth P. Serbin has produced a thoroughly researched, meticulously argued, and superbly written history of the Brazilian Catholic Church through an examination of the priests and seminarians who peopled its ranks. In doing so, Serbin has established himself as the leading historian of the Brazilian Catholic Church in the United States, following in the footsteps of Ralph Della Cava, Scott Mainwaring, and Thomas C. Bruneau, by offering an important social and cultural history of the institution. One simply cannot understand the complex trajectory of the Brazilian Catholic Church without reading this book. [End Page 251]
After a dense, yet careful consideration of the Church's early history in colonial Brazil, Serbin analyzes attempts at the beginning of the Second Empire in 1840 to bring a wayward priesthood under stricter Roman authority. Lack of compliance to basic tenants, such as celibacy and obedience, had led the Church hierarchy to push for conservative reforms. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Romanization meant attacks on liberalism and a program of moderate modernization, which included raising the moral level of the faithful and the clergy and Europeanizing the Brazilian Church. A drop in the number of native-born Brazilians willing to enter Church service required the importation of priests from abroad. European missionaries, largely French Vincentians, also helped head off the expansion of popular religiosity, especially millenary movements that threatened the social and political status quo.
At first the establishment of a republic in 1889 was a setback for the Catholic Church. The new constitution separated the Church from the State. Gone were government subsidies and the Emperor's right to nominate bishops. The Church lost its role as the registrar of births, marriages, and deaths. It no longer could teach the faith in public schools. Disestablishment, however, gave the Church its independence from State control. Autonomy created a new dynamic that allowed it to grow considerably in size and scope during the early twentieth century. Moreover, a flood of foreign priests entered the country, strengthening the clergy and its ability to attend to more congregations. After Vargas's lock on political power in 1930, the Church negotiated a new role with the State, gaining back some of its political influence and becoming a mainstay of anticommunist mobilizations.
Key to a strategy designed to...