Religious Question

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The Religious Question (Portuguese: Questão Religiosa) was a crisis between the Catholic church and the state apparatus of the Brazilian Empire. It led to the imprisonment of two bishops and contributed to the downfall of the government of José Paranhos, Viscount of Rio Branco.

Cartoon alluding to the crisis


Although Catholicism was the state religion of Brazil, and Portugal before it, the Catholic clergy had for a time been perceived as understaffed, undisciplined and poorly educated, with a consequent loss of respect for the Church.[1]

The Imperial government wanted to reform the church and appointed a series of well educated, reforming bishops.[2] Although these bishops agreed with the government on the need to reform, they did not share Pedro II's views on the subservience of the Church to government and were influenced by Ultramontanism which emphasised loyalty to the Papacy over loyalty to the civil powers.[2]

The Lay Fraternities and Freemasonry[edit]

One of the new generation of bishops was the bishop of Olinda, Dom Vital, he was consecrated a bishop in 1872. He was keen to ensure that the Papal ban of Freemasonry was taken seriously. All forms of Freemasonry had long been forbidden to all Catholics under pain of excommunication,[3] although it was felt by some Brazilian Masons that they did not share the anti-clericalism of Latin Freemasonry.[4] There had been some tension earlier in Rio de Janeiro, where a priest had been suspended due to his Masonic membership,[5] although after pressure from the Prime Minister the priest was reinstated.[6]

Lay Fraternities and Sodalities (‹See Tfd›(in Portuguese) irmandades) played an important part in Brazilian life fulfilling a charitable role and were also important in conferring social status.[7] They were attached to churches and would often have their own chapels, including some of the most important buildings in Olinda's diocesan seat of Recife. Freemasonry was relatively common among members of the Lay Fraternities.[8]


On December 28, 1872, Dom Vital asked Olinda's parish priests to notify Lay Fraternities that they had to expel Freemason who refused to resign. There followed three individual warnings to each fraternity. On January 19, 1873 Dom Vital then issued an interdict against those Lay Fraternities that refused his request to expel Freemasons;[9] this meant that no sacraments could be celebrated in their buildings.

This was a challenge to the government as the Prime Minister, Rio Branco, was grand master of the most eminent body in Brazilian Freemasonry,[7] and had been a member since at least 1840.[10]

Some of the fraternities appealed to the crown in 1873, claiming that this was not a solely spiritual matter and so (in the Government's view) was a matter for the state and not the church.

After the appeal was lodged the bishop of Pará, Antônio de Macedo Costa, also placed Lay Fraternities that refused to expel Freemasons under interdict. In May 1873 Pope Pius XI sent a supportive encyclical Quamquam Dolores to Dom Vital, and by extension to the other Brazilian bishops.[11]

The Council of State of the Empire of Brazil, presided over by Pedro II, came down on the side of the Freemasons and against the church. In June 1873 they ordered Dom Vital to rescind the interdict, which he refused.

Imprisoning the bishops[edit]

After Dom Vital's refusal the government brought charges to the Supreme Court of Justice, for the crime of attempting against the power of the State which was a criminal charge that carried a heavy sentence; the bishop made a public protest in his seat of Recife and was arrested on January 2, 1874.

The refusal from Vital and the defiance from Costa led to the bishops being tried before the Supreme Court of Justice of the Empire, where in 1874 they were convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor which was commuted to imprisonment without hard labour.[12][13][14] Rio Branco explained in a letter written in August 1873 that he believed the government "could not compromise in the affair" since "it involved principles essential to the social order and to national sovereignty", a conviction shared by the Emperor Pedro II;[15] the Emperor unequivocally backed the government's actions against the bishops.[16][17][18]

The trial and imprisonment of the two bishops was very unpopular with the public.[19]

Quebra Quilo Riots[edit]

The Quebra Quilo ("Smash the Kilos") riots were seen to be partially influenced by the imprisonment; the imposition of the metric system led to demonstrations in the northeast in 1874 with metric weights and measures destroyed by peasants, and land and tax records burned. The riots did not have any lasting impact—although it illustrated popular dissatisfaction and was an embarrassment to the government."[19] The Quebra Quilo riots were suspected of being condoned by priests,[20] and together with the arrest of the bishops, drew attention to the Imperial government having become embroiled in a no-win dispute.[12]

End of the crisis[edit]

The crisis would only be smoothed over by the fall of the Cabinet and the Emperor's reluctant grant of a full amnesty to the bishops;[14][21] the new Prime Minister, the Duke of Caxias, who was a Freemason himself, but also a staunch Catholic,[22] threatened to resign if the Emperor did not grant the amnesty, which Pedro II grudgingly issued on September 17, 1875.[23][24]

Historian Heitor Lyra blamed all parties for a lack of tact, and intransigence which caused harm mostly to the monarchy.[25]


The main consequence of the crisis was that the clergy no longer saw any benefit in upholding Pedro II.[16] Although they abandoned the Emperor, most eagerly awaited the accession of his eldest daughter and heir Isabel because of her Ultramontane views.[26]

Dom Vital died soon after his release.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barman, Roderick J. (1999). Citizen Emperor: Pedro II and the Making of Brazil, 1825–1891 (in Portuguese). Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-8047-3510-0.
  2. ^ a b Barman 1999, p. 254.
  3. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, O M Alves, The Seattle Catholic]
  4. ^ Barman 1999, p. 255-256.
  5. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, O M Alves, The Seattle Catholic]
  6. ^ Page 161, The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America, By John Frederick Schwaller
  7. ^ a b Barman 1999, p. 256.
  8. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, O M Alves, The Seattle Catholic]
  9. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, Seattle Catholic
  10. ^ Vainfas 2002, p. 439.
  11. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, Seattle Catholic
  12. ^ a b Barman 1999, p. 257.
  13. ^ Carvalho 2007, p. 152.
  14. ^ a b Lyra 1977, Vol 2, p. 208.
  15. ^ Barman 1999, pp. 256–257.
  16. ^ a b Carvalho 2007, p. 153.
  17. ^ Barman 1999, pp. 257–258.
  18. ^ Lyra 1977, Vol 2, p. 212.
  19. ^ a b Barman 1999, p. 258.
  20. ^ Lyra 1977, Vol 2, pp. 219–220.
  21. ^ Carvalho 2007, p. 156.
  22. ^ Morais 2003, pp. 166–168.
  23. ^ Lira 1977b, pp. 217–218.
  24. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, by O. M. Alves, 2 November 2005, Seattle Catholic
  25. ^ Lyra 1977, Vol 2, pp. 208–212.
  26. ^ Carvalho 2007, p. 155.
  27. ^ The Young Friar and the Emperor, by O. M. Alves, The Seattle Catholic