Serbin to examine impact of Brazil on Catholicism



As the largest Catholic country in the world, Brazil’s impact on the Catholic Church is integral.

Kenneth P. Serbin, professor and chair in the Department of History at the University of San Diego, will give a lecture titled “The Impact of Brazilian Catholicism” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”

More than 1 in 10 of the world’s Catholics come from Brazil, and much of the international leadership of the Catholic Church also comes from the country, Serbin said. The Catholic Church was highly instrumental in settling Brazil, and those roots continue to shape Brazilians.

“They helped give Brazil its identity,” Serbin said. “Catholicism is a key part of how Brazilians identify themselves and how Brazil as a nation has identified itself. Even though Brazil is known as a religiously diverse country with other religious denominations … Catholicism has been one of the main ways in which Brazil has defined itself.”

A key difference between the religious tradition of the United States and that of Brazil and other Latin American countries is separation of church and state; in the U.S., that separation is clear, whereas Brazil did not experience this division until becoming a republic with a president in 1889.

Throughout most of the 20th century — and even into the present day — strong ties between religion and government remain in Brazil, Serbin said.

“Both the concept and the history of the separation of church and state are different,” he said.

Fulfilling its missionary goals, the Catholic Church came to Brazil to bring new people into Christianity, and members of the Church were used to fighting people of other faiths and subjugating them to their ways, Serbin said. In addition to spreading Christianity, members of the Church attempted to bring native Brazilians into a system of Western morality, discouraging nudity, polygamy and cannibalism.

“The missionaries who came to Brazil arrived with an attitude of what’s been described as warrior Catholicism,” Serbin said. “It was a massive enterprise of religious and cultural conversion.”

In the 20th century, however, Brazilian Catholicism underwent major transformations. As Brazil became an industrialized nation and sought to modernize — and as economic growth contributed to rising social inequality in the country — liberation theology began to gain traction in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The Church’s role for much of its history was to maintain social order and resist questioning the system, but through liberation theology, Catholics began to question what they’d been doing in the past, Serbin said.

Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil operated under a military government, which was a time of torture, censorship, assassination and restrictions on political activity. It was then that the Catholic Church emerged as a “voice for the voiceless,” Serbin said.

“It was a very dark period in Brazilian history, and it coincided with the rise of the Catholic Church as a voice,” he said. “The Church, through liberation theology, developed a new outlook, and this was an outlook of descending human rights.”

Starting in the 1980s, however, there was a conservative reaction to radicalism in world politics, and although liberation theology was not communist, it shared many points of contact with communism, Serbin said. Some of the most radical followers of liberation theology supported revolutionary movements.

Additionally, the Church is less active in Brazil today because Brazil is now a democratic nation, Serbin said.

“There are still many criticisms that can be made of this democracy,” he said. “But it’s a much better situation than it was under the military government.”