The Emptying of the Catholic Church in Brazil: A Bitter Fruit of Liberation Theology

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The Emptying of the Catholic Church in Brazil: A Bitter Fruit of Liberation Theology“Catholics dropped from 93.1% to 64.6% of the population in 50 years”
“Between 1960 and 2010, Brazil saw its share of people declaring themselves Catholic fall from 93.1% to 64.6%”1 reads the Folho de S.Paulo article based on a report of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics IBGE.“In a decade, Catholics lose more space to evangelicals”

“Between 2000 and 2010, the Catholic share of the total population fell by 12%; the number of Evangelicals grew by 43% and that of people without religion rose by 10%”2 reads the online edition of O Estado de S.Paulo.Curiously enough, these alarming news items do not seem to have alarmed the bishops of Brazil, as we will see.

This drop is not something that happened overnight, taking the Brazilian bishops by surprise, nor was it unpredictable; it is the result of a long process of decay that has only gotten worse over the last decades.Let us dwell a little on the analysis of the figures, and then investigate the causes of this decline. “The World’s Largest Catholic Nation”

The First Mass in Brazil by Meirelles
Franciscan friar Henrique Soares celebrates the first known Mass on the American mainland on April 26, 1500.

Brazil was discovered and colonized by Portugal, a Catholic nation. The first Jesuit missionaries were filled with a great zeal for souls. Catholicism marked the whole life of the country which eventually became the largest Catholic nation in the world, not only in absolute numbers but also percentage-wise in relation to other religions.

Until a few decades ago, the growth of Protestantism, spiritism, and Eastern and African-Brazilian religions was rather slow. According to data from the first census conducted in Brazil in 1872, compared with data from the 1970 census, one finds that the proportion of Catholics dropped by only 7.9 percentage points, falling from 99.7% in 1872 to 91.8% in 1970.3

Yet, academic studies suggest the reason, at least in part, for this increase in non-Catholics was due to immigration.4

From 1970 onward, the growth of other religions and the decrease in the number of Catholics markedly accelerated. According to the just-released 2010 census, the percentage of Catholics has fallen to 64.6 %. Therefore, over the last 40 years, the Church has lost almost 30% of its faithful (precisely, 27.2%). Furthermore, the number of practicing Catholics in the same period ranges between 5% and 10%.5

Eucharistic Congress, Anhangabaú, São Paulo, 1942
The Eucharistic Congress of 1942 filled the valley of Anhangabaú, the “cradle” of São Paulo.

At the same time, the number of Protestants rose from 6.6% in 1980 to 22.2%, with Pentecostal denominations experiencing the highest growth rate.

Sociological reasons are often given to explain this change in the religious outlook of Brazil. It is claimed that massive migrations from rural areas to city suburbs or the great efforts Pentecostals make to accommodate fallen away Catholics. Such explanations are superficial and do not go to the root of the problem. This is all the more so since Pentecostal Protestant growth has taken place also in rural areas: in percentage terms, the highest Protestant concentration was found in Rondônia (33.8%), a typically rural state in northwestern Brazil.

Liberation Theology: A Mere Coincidence?

Clearly, the underlying reasons that explain the loss of faithful by the Catholic Church are of a religious nature and should be sought in the crisis that has shaken the Church in Brazil (and nearly everywhere).

Metropolitan Cathedral of São Paulo, Brazil
The Metropolitan Cathedral of São Paulo, Brazil.

It is no mere coincidence that the accelerated loss of faithful by the Church in the 1970s took place at the same time as the principles of Liberation Theology spread among the Brazilian clergy and episcopate. This “theology” confuses spiritual liberation with political liberation, and seeks the establishment of the “Kingdom of God” on earth with the implantation of an egalitariansocialist society.

As a result, many sermons in churches, as well as from mottoes of the bishops’ “Fraternity Campaigns” deal more with class struggle and political and socio-economic reforms than with the Gospel.

Let us take a concrete example. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) put out a newsletter describing the 2010 Fraternity Campaign in this manner:

Motto: You cannot serve God and Money (Matt. 6:24)
Theme: Economy and Life
General Objective: To collaborate in the promotion of an economy at the service of life, based on the ideal of a culture of peace, with a joint effort of Christian Churches and people of good will, so that all may contribute to the construction of the common good in view of a society without exclusion.6

As can be seen, there are no references to eternal life, the salvation of souls, sin, heaven and hell. It uses the purely political language of class struggle, which scares away the faithful who desire to hear about the eternal truths of the Faith. The reference to “a society without exclusion” is based on the Marxist concept that the wealth of the rich is made by excluding or oppressing the poor.

(Without wishing to delve further into this matter, let us note in passing the “ecumenical” character of these campaigns, which place the Catholic Church only as one of the “Christian Churches” rather than as the sole Church of Christ. Does this not facilitate proselytizing by Protestant preachers?)

This year’s anthem-hymn of the Bishops’ Campaign has the following stanza:

Take my call for freedom to everyone (Cf. Gal. 5:13)
Where greed generates enslaved brothers,
I want a message that humanizes society
Spoken openly, proclaimed from the roofs.
(Cf. Matt. 10:27)7

Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P.
Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. is a Peruvian theologian and regarded as the founder of Liberation Theology.

In short, Liberation Theology is a religious tool at the service of revolution. Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, considered the “father” of this current, introduced it in his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation in this way:“In the revolutionary struggle … the Latin American man somehow frees himself from the tutelage of an alienating religion that tends to maintain order.”8

By deeming Holy Church as an “alienating religion” (“Religion is the opium of the people,” Marx wrote), liberation theologians and their followers seek to build a “disalienated” church which tends not to “maintain order” but to subvert it.

As a consequence, the faithful, tired of this “disalienated,” revolutionary and

materialistic religion focused on economic and social issues often end up tragically falling away from the only true Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They go elsewhere to look for words of religious comfort and guidance for their moral life: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou alone hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Our Lady of Brazil, Jardim América, São Paulo
Our Lady of Brazil, Jardim América, São Paulo, Brazil.

Will the Brazilian bishops finally wake up and realize that the primary mission of the Church is to save souls rather than offer solutions to economic and social problems, and even less try to establish an egalitarian society? Or will they remain mesmerized by the utopian mirage of Liberation Theology?


  1. Denise Menchen-Fabio Brisolla, “Católicos passam de 93,1% para 64,6% da população em 50 anos, aponta IBGE” [“Catholics Drop from 93.1% to 64.6% of the Population in 50 Years, says IBGE”] in Folha de S.Paulo, 6/29/2012 online edition.

  2. “A fé dos brasileiros” in O Estado de S.Paulo, May 26, 2012, online edition at
  3. Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics; “Censo 2010: número de católicos cai e aumenta o de evangélicos, espíritas e sem religião”[“2010 Census: Number of Catholics Drops, that of Evangelicals, Spiritualists and those without Religion Increases”],
  4. See, for example, Narcizo Makchwell Coimbra (Universidade Federal de Goiás), O protestantismo de imigração no Brasil [Immigration Protestantism in Brazil]: “One of the main factors that contributed to the propagation of the Protestant ideology in the country was the immigration surge in the 19th century…. We have found that one of the most important consequences of immigration Protestantism is the fact that it helped created the conditions that facilitate the introduction of missionary Protestantism in Brazil.”
  5. “Censo revela que católicos permanecem maioria no Brasil” [“Census Reveals that Catholics Remain a Majority in Brazil”], O SÃO PAULO, July 3, 2012, (in passing, note the still optimistic tone of the newspaper of the Archdiocese of São Paulo.)
  6. “Campanha da Fraternidade 2010 – Ecumênica” [“2010 Fraternity Campaign—Ecumenical”],
  8. G. Gutiérrez, Teologia da Libertação, Brazilian edition, Vozes, Petrópolis, 1975, p. 67.

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