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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
2 Nov 2005

The Young Friar and the Emperor

by O. M. Alves

Dom Vital and Emperor Pedro II
Dom Vital and Emperor Pedro II

On September 17, 1875, 130 years ago, an unwilling monarch signed the amnesty order releasing two incarcerated bishops and putting an end to the most dramatic episode in the history of Catholicism in the largest nation of Latin America. For almost three years, what had become known as the "Religious Affair" (Questão Religiosa) had agitated the whole Empire of Brazil — at the end of the terrible ordeal, the longest-serving cabinet in Brazilian parliamentary history had fallen, the Emperor had been forced to capitulate, and the centuries-old alliance between the Church and the House of Braganza had been irretrievably severed.

The Religious Affair in Brazil cannot be understood without proper knowledge of its main character: Bishop Vital Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira, a Capuchin friar, known simply as Dom Vital. This native of the northeastern province of Parahyba had begun his studies for the priesthood in the diocesan seminary of Olinda, and had pursued further studies at the renowned St. Sulpice Seminary in Paris, joining the Capuchins of Versailles shortly thereafter, in 1863. He was ordained to the priesthood while a friar in the Capuchin convent of Toulouse, in 1868.

Upon his return to Brazil, he taught in the diocesan seminary of São Paulo and, after a few years, was surprisingly called upon by the imperial government to fill the vacant see of Olinda — at the age of twenty-six. Though the young friar was reluctant to accept the post, Blessed Pius IX agreed with the imperial indication and nominated him to the episcopate.

Dom Vital began his episcopal ministry in May 1872. An agitated Freemasonry, rattled by the suspension of a Freemason priest by the bishop of Rio de Janeiro earlier in the year, was eager to provoke the clergy throughout the Empire — confident that the government of prime-minister Paranhos, the Viscount of Rio Branco who was also the Great-Master of the largest national Masonic association, would stand by it.

For decades, the male Catholic fraternities and sodalities throughout Brazil had included large numbers of Freemasons. The Catholic fraternities were powerful — in the Diocese of Olinda and in its main city of Recife where the episcopal palace was located, the fraternities owned some of the most important religious buildings. In the entire country, the Church was regarded by the government as a mere administrative office and relations between a largely liberal clergy and the Freemasonry were very amicable. Several priests were also Freemasons.

Soon after his arrival at Olinda, Dom Vital faced several challenges to his authority by the Freemasons in the fraternities — and also virulent criticism from the Masonic press, which even published lists of fraternity members who were Freemasons, trusting that the young bishop would not do much. On December 28, 1872, Dom Vital issued his first statement on the matter, asking the parish priests to notify the Catholic fraternities that those Freemason members who refused to abjure their Masonic affiliation were to be expelled.

The canonical bases for the excommunication of Freemasons were clear and no pope had been more forceful in that regard than Pius IX. After three warnings to each fraternity, Dom Vital issued, on January 19, 1873, an interdict against each fraternity which had refused to expel its Masonic members — and forbidding the celebration of sacraments in their chapels and oratories.

The fraternities appealed to the Crown in February 1873, with the allegation that the matter was not exclusively spiritual, which allowed for Imperial review of the episcopal decision, and that the fraternities could never have suffered any penalty, since the papal documents which called for the excommunication of Freemasons had never received the imperial "placet" (acceptance), as the Constitution of the Empire demanded (a demand which the Holy See had never accepted).

The bishop did not waiver; several other bishops gave him support. In the Diocese of Belem do Para, which covered half of the immense territory of the Brazilian Amazon, another product of the Parisian Sulpicians, bishop Antonio de Macedo Costa, followed the example of Dom Vital and also placed the recalcitrant fraternities under interdict in April. In May 1873, the Holy Father sent an encyclical, Quamquam Dolores, to Dom Vital and, through him, to all Brazilian bishops, supporting the measures taken by the young prelate.

In June 1873, the Council of State, presided by Emperor Pedro II, decided that the fraternities were right: the matter involved civil aspects and the papal documents were not valid for the "Brazilian Church" and could never have been enforced by the bishop. The power of the State and of the Sovereign, as well as the force of the Constitution, were at stake. The Council of State ordered Dom Vital to lift the interdicts which he had imposed on the fraternities.

The stage was set for the battle between the Imperial State and a weakened Church, between might and right. The Prosecutor-General of the Crown brought charges against Dom Vital to the Supreme Court of Justice, not for disobedience, which carried a light sentence, but for attempting against the power of the State. The Court, which had immediate jurisdiction over bishops in criminal matters, accepted the charges, and the bishop was arrested in Recife on January 2, 1874, after making a public protest. Dom Vital was brought to the imperial capital city of Rio de Janeiro, where he was incarcerated in dreadful conditions in a cell in the Navy Arsenal building.

Meanwhile, the Imperial government had sent its ambassador in London, the Baron of Penedo, to Rome, to try to distort the facts of what Dom Vital had done and to ask the Roman Pontiff for a reversal of the interdicts. Incorrectly informed of the succession of events, Cardinal Antonelli, the Secretary of State, sent a private letter to Dom Vital, with mild admonishments. The government and the Masonic press hailed the private letter, which would only be published more than a decade after the affair, as a victory for their cause — but the Pope had not been aware that the letter sent by Cardinal Antonelli, on December 18, 1873, would be delivered to a bishop under arrest, since the Brazilian ambassador had kept the details of the civil prosecution of the bishop hidden from the Roman Curia.

Dom Vital had not offered any formal defense when subpoenaed by the Court and he would remain silent throughout the trial, which began on February 18, 1874, in a Court whose jurisdiction he did not recognize in a purely spiritual matter. By his side in the Court stood the bishop of Rio de Janeiro and the visiting Apostolic Vicar of Kansas City, bishop Jean Baptiste Miège, in a clear sign of episcopal solidarity.

Two of the greatest Brazilian lawyers offered their services on behalf of the bishop and were recognized by the Court. However, the power of the adversaries of the bishop was just too strong. The clear arbitrariness of the actions of the Imperial government did not prevent the Court from convicting the bishop to four years in prison (in an almost unanimous vote, with the only exception of Justice Baron of Pirapama).

Upon learning about this terrible set of events, the Pope sent a heartfelt letter to Dom Vital, on March 4, 1874:

"May your heart be comforted and may you rely on the Lord, who is our helper and protector and who shall not let those who have hope in him be unnecessarily disturbed, nor shall he shut his ears to the voices of his dearest wife, who cries against those who have persecuted her"

The deceived Pontiff was now as bitter an enemy of the Freemasons in the Brazilian government as Dom Vital himself — the short-lived diplomatic victory became a growing and frustrating failure.

The same pathetic spectacle would repeat itself with the Bishop of Belem, Dom Macedo Costa, convicted on July 1, 1874, and with the episcopal administrators named by both bishops to govern their dioceses in their absence and who also refused to obey the orders of the Imperial government and were duly prosecuted and convicted.

Two of the twelve Brazilian bishops were in jail, two bishops widely admired and recognized by their holiness and intellectual prowess. The lukewarmness of Brazilian Catholicism had been replaced by a fiery testimony. The episcopal interdicts remained in place, since there was nothing that the civil authorities could do to lift them, and public opinion turned growingly against the government and against Emperor Pedro II, who was a Josephist by conviction as well as by blood, through his Habsburg mother, and who viewed the Religious Affair as a matter of personal honor.

The longest-serving government of the Empire finally fell under public pressure in July 1875. Prime-minister Rio Branco, the mighty master of the Brazilian Freemasonry, could not resist a public opinion inflamed by the witness of the jailed 29-year-old Capuchin, whose supposedly "ultramontane intolerance" had become a living testimony and an agonizingly slow martyrdom for the freedom of the Church.

The political crisis was so overwhelming that only the most admired Brazilian, the Duke of Caxias, heroic victor of so many battles, was considered strong enough to head the new government. The Duke accepted the charge, but demanded from the Emperor something in return: the amnesty of the incarcerated clerics, the only act which could bring national pacification.

The stubborn monarch had no option but to accept the demand. The decree of amnesty was signed and the imprisoned clerics were released from their cells in different forts in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Dom Vital went to Rome and begged the Holy Father to release him of the burden of the episcopate. Pius IX did not accede to the wish of the frail Capuchin, for whom he had unsurpassed admiration. On May 29, 1876, the Holy Father issued a new encyclical letter, Exortae in ista Ditione, praising the testimony of both bishops and the fortitude of the Church in Brazil. After a few months in Rome, the friar briefly visited his diocese of Olinda, but had to return to Europe for health reasons. He never fully recovered from his year and a half in prison and died in the Capuchin convent in Paris, on July 8, 1878 at the age of 33.

Dom Macedo Costa returned to his diocese of Belem do Para, and was appointed archbishop of São Salvador da Bahia and Primate of Brazil on June 26, 1890. This brilliant bishop had become the leader of the Brazilian episcopate and was about to be named cardinal when he died at the age of sixty, in 1891.

The Religious Affair had major political consequences, mostly because it estranged orthodox Brazilian Catholics, including most of the hierarchy, from an alliance with a decadent dynasty whose only religious policy for decades had been the utter subjugation of the Church. And that certainly explains why there were no cries of sympathy for the Emperor from the hierarchy when the Republican form of government was unexpectedly established by a bloodless coup in Rio de Janeiro, on November 15, 1889. On the contrary, when the bishops of Brazil, led by Dom Macedo Costa, met in Rio and issued their Collective Pastoral Letter of 1890, they condemned the new Republican government for the sudden, though peaceful, separation of Church and State, but they saved their greatest condemnation for the fallen monarchy:

"We have just witnessed a spectacle which haunted the universe, one of those events by which Almighty God, when it pleases him to do so, gives great lessons to nations and kings; a throne has suddenly fallen in the abyss which dissolving principles created in a few years around it! The throne has disappeared... And the altar? The altar stands, supported by the faith of the people and by the power of God. The altar stands, embalmed with the odor of the Sacrifice, supporting the Cross, supporting the Tabernacle inside which is the Treasure of Treasures, the most pure fact of Christianity, the radiant center from which rivers of life, mercy, and salvation flow.... The altar stands. And the honor of our nation is that it be kept standing always."


O. M. Alves is a lawyer in Brazil. This article was written as part of his academic research on Church-State relations in his country.

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