- Needs of the Heart: A Social and Cultural History of Brazil's Clergy and Seminaries
In this groundbreaking work, Kenneth Serbin has provided a masterful account of the history of Brazil's clergy and their training from the sixteenth century to the present day. Supplemented by a unique and comprehensive collection of tables, figures, and maps, Serbin provides original and detailed [End Page 182] insight into an aspect of church history in Brazil not commonly explored — certainly not on this scale. This work is a "must" read not only for those interested in Brazilian history, but for anyone looking to understand the state and role of the Church in contemporary Brazilian society. One of Serbin's key observations relates to the way in which the clergy were both shaped by, and actively shaped their centuries-long experience in Brazil. "In some instances," he relates, "the intended transformers of Latin America's religious culture became the transformed because of their profound experiences in the region." At the same time, notes Serbin, "no matter how foreign the models, priests employed great creativity in adapting them to the local context" (p. 18).
To facilitate his task, Serbin divides Brazilian clerical history into four critical stages. During the first (1549–1759), religious orders dispatched from Europe dominated the religious landscape, in effect aiding and abetting the conquest of Brazil by the Portuguese. With the growing maturity of Brazilian society (1759–1840), however, an indigenous secular clergy began to emerge from a growing number of domestic seminaries. Given their domestic roots, these priests in turn aligned themselves with local elites looking to establish Brazil as a modern nation-state. The subsequent period (1840–1962) focuses on the Church's attempts to bring an increasingly "untamed" Brazilian Church back into line with established doctrine and practice. Focusing on the case of the Vincentian fathers, Serbin demonstrates how the Church restructured seminary training to reinforce the Vatican ideal. Yet, while the growing cohort of effectively Romanized clergy "transformed Catholicism into a religious, intellectual, and social force" (p. 108) by the mid-twentieth century, it bred as well a sense of self-centeredness among the clergy and a growing sense of alienation between the institution and ordinary Brazilians. With the advent of Vatican Council II, the stage was thus set for a growing conflict between "new" and "old" church ideals. For proponents of a Catholicism more attuned to the social realities of Brazil in the 1960s and early 1970s, few choices were in evidence; for those who did not leave outright, the primary option was "liberation theology" and a growth in seminary training attuned preferentially to the dire condition of Brazil's "poor and oppressed." From this point, the story is reasonably well known, as the Brazilian Church—led by a highly visible cohort of "radical priests"—led a running battle with Brazil's ruling generals until democracy returned in the mid-1980s. As Serbin outlines in his epilogue, the ultimate fate of this grand experiment is equally well known, with the Church's relatively rapid retreat to orthodoxy in the 1990s, ostensibly in response to both Vatican pressure and the growing domestic threat posed by galloping Protestantism.
The long and winding history of the Brazilian Catholic Church is thus revealed in Serbin's analysis as the partial work-product of its primary footsoldiers—its clergy. As such, the book provides a critical complement to previous work which has focused with relative exclusivity on the policies and practices of church leadership, whether in Brazil or the Vatican. Quite correctly, then, [End Page 183] Serbin's thesis reminds us of the need to maintain a sharp focus on the full range of actors in the historical dramas which have shaped nations.