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The Religious Question in Brazil through the eyes of a Jesuit

Translation José Filardo

Father João Evangelista Martins Terra, S.J.


In his book History of the Religious Question in Brazil, the historian Antonio Carlos Villaça makes a note that seems deeply true: “the religious question” does not begin in Olinda or in Recife. Or in the state of Pará. It begins in Rio de Janeiro. In Rio in 1872, all celebrate the Law of the Free Womb. The Viscount of Rio Branco presides over the Cabinet and chairs, as Grand Master, the Grand Orient of Lavradio. The other Grand Orient, of the Valley of the Benedictines, was chaired by the Grand Master Saldanha Marinho. The Grand Orient of Lavradio was connected to the Italian Freemasonry; the Grand Orient of the Valley of the Benedictines was linked to the French Freemasonry.

On March 3rd, 1872, there was at the Grand Orient of Lavradio a session to celebrate the victory of Rio Branco, i.e. the Law of the Free Womb. It was a formal Masonic session. One of the speakers, Father José Luís de Almeida Martins, received from his Bishop, Dom Pedro Maria de Lacerda, an insistent appeal to leave the lodges. In vain. Father Almeida Martins published his vehement Masonic speech in major newspapers. The Bishop of Rio resolves to suspend him from his orders.

In itself, the episode that inaugurates the episcopal-Masonic controversy is irrelevant. However, in fact, it had wide repercussions.

Freemasonry, offended with the Bishop’s reaction, which invokes papal texts not approved by the imperial government, convenes a session for April16th, chaired by the Viscount of Rio Branco, President of the Council. At the suggestion of the same Rio Branco, the Grand Orient decides to unleash a war through the newspapers against the Brazilian Episcopacy.

On April 27, the Grand Orient of the Valley of the Benedictines convened and issued identical resolutions. The first result was, therefore, the union of the two Grand Lodges of Rio, previously split.

History repeats itself: Pilate and Herod also became friends in Jesus’ trial. “Pacti sunt amici inter se Herodes et Pilatus in ipsa die, nam antea inimici erant ad invicem” (Lc 23,12).

“The Brazilian Freemasonry was divided, in internecine warfare. The Bishop of Rio induced the union of the Order . ” To fight the Church, the opponents joined their forces.

Both Grand Masters, Rio Branco and Saldanha Marinho, decreed to Freemasons all over Brazil to unite their forces for the war they would wage against the Catholic Church.

Masonic newspapers stirred. A Familia in Rio; the Universal Family and A Verdade in Pernambuco; The Pelican, in Pará; A Fraternidade , in Ceará; A Lux, in Rio Grande do Norte; Laborum, in Alagoas; O Maçom, in Rio Grande do Sul. In different parts of the country, new newspapers were founded with the purpose of combating what they called “Ultramontanism” or “Jesuitism,” but that was exactly the Catholic Church.

This sectarian press was led by Saldanha Marinho, under the pseudonym of Ganganelli. In newspapers and writings widely disseminated throughout the nation, the Freemasons denied all teachings of the Church; they attacked all the dogmas of the Catholic religion, especially the Holy Trinity; the divinity of Christ; the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, etc. The clergy was cherished with words such as: rag tags, bitter detractors, Cappadocian of great force, derisory pedagogues, sycophants, etc. D. Boaventura Kloppenburg, who gives us this information, says: “we have in hand a book of 570 pages, written by Ganganelli, with the title of Church and State (Rio de Janeiro, 1873). From the first to the last page, it is a constant, virulent, spiteful, violent attack on the Church, and all that is dear and sacred to the Catholics. His hatred aim, first at the hierarchy, the clergy(Freemasonry in Brazil, Petrópolis, 1956).

Kloppenburg quotes several passages of this work of the powerful Grand Master Saldanha Marinho. I will transcribe here an example: “And because it is necessary to take to greater indeclinable need to expunge from Brazil this horde of thugs, these dealers of consciences, these soldiers of the Roman Curia, who soft and gently, are taking this country, whose future mastering they covet … The powers of the State must guard against the evils that the priests of Rome prepare for us. Kill them, in principle, chase away from Brazil the plague that intends to devour it, free, while we can, this land from the clutches of black vultures that hover over it, is the main duty, the sacred duty of those who command the public affairs, and should secure the happiness and provide for the security of the country (op. cit., 0659 p. 205).

Until 1872, writes D. Vital, the Freemasonry in Brazil respected the Catholic religion. It introduced itself in the clergy, in the convents, in the chapters, in the fraternities. However, when it had a Grand Master at the helm of the national Government … it judged opportune to attack the Church” (apud, A. C. Villaça, History of the Religious Question in Brazil, p. 7).


Friar D. Vital Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira, from Pernambuco, appointed Bishop of Olinda at the age of 27 years, took office at the diocese on May 24, 1872, accompanied by the Bishop of Belem, D. Antônio de Macedo Costa, companion in the infamous battle of Freemasonry that would start very quickly, and nearly led Brazil to the brink of religious schism.

The diocese of Olinda was marked by long vacancies or by very ephemeral government. Between D. Azeredo Coutinho (1802) and D. Vital (1872), there was practically only one Bishop who came to effectively govern the diocese of Olinda: Dom João da Purificação Marques Perdigão (from 1830 to 1864). During those 34 years, he founded 19 parishes, built 18 churches and created 4 fraternities. “He attempted to reform the seminar for the regeneration of the clergy … But, due to his natural gentleness and his old age; he failed his purpose ” (J. do Carmo Baratta, Heroes School, p. 83).

These extended vacancies, combined with the precarious formation of the clergy at the seminary in Olinda, due to the ideologies of the Enlightenment, gallicanism and liberalism, which had rooted in the Church, contributed to Freemasonry deploying deeply, particularly in the fraternities, who were virtually under the control of Masonic lodges.

At that time, Freemasonry threatened to dominate the Church in Pernambuco, a fact that led D. Vital to unleash against this institution at the time, heretical, the most heroic struggle of all times.

Before D. Vital arrived in Olinda to exercise his episcopate, the Masonic newspapers already attacked him brutally, as the attacked the Bishop of Rio and the Church in general. Before, therefore, then the Bishops of Olinda and Pará had said any word or practiced any action against Freemasonry.

It was not D. Vitalwho, with possible recklessness, broke the condescension mood of a Masonic Ministry. The Masonic attacks prove it. Freemasonry saw the need to concentrate its heavy artillery against the diocese of Olinda which since the death of D. Marques Perdigão (1864) was practically headless. The appointment of a young prelate from pernambucano educated in France represented a danger.

The provocations of the press began soon. In June 1872, just a month after the inauguration of the new Bishop, Freemasonry’s official newspaper and other newspapers in Recife announced the celebration of a mass at the Church of S. Pedro, commissioned by Freemasonry to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of a Masonic lodge. The Bishop of Olinda ordered privately to the clergy not to celebrate or even attend the ceremony announced, anyway, as Masonic. And, in fact, the mass was not celebrated.

Once again, the Masonic press announced another mass for July 4th, for the soul of a deceased Mason. Once again, the Diocesan Authority denied it. The “religious question” was already about to be unleashed vertiginously.

The press, at the service of the frustrated Freemasonry irreverently attacked the dogmas of the Catholic Church, with insults to the Pope and to the mother of God. It was then that D. Vital, on November 21st, 1872, wrote a Pastoral letter to the clergy, cautioning his priests and employees to be prepared about the doctrines preached by Freemasonry.

D. Vital could not admit that Brothers of religious Brotherhoods joined Freemasonry and, with greater reason, he forbade the participation of the clergy. Some priests, in fact, were Freemasons, but they yielded immediately to the decision of the Diocesan authority. Others preferred to remain silent. However, there were some who rebelled against the Bishop. In Natal, Father Francisco Areas published an irreverent challenge, criticizing the hierarchy and the Pope. He was suspended from his duties and died impenitent. The other three freemason priests of that province were also suspended, but they repented and died reconciled with the Church.

In Paraiba, there have been other similar cases. The most famous was that of Father João Francisco de Azevedo, a famous speaker, inventor of the typewriter, who resisted all entreaties of the Bishop and had to be suspended from the Holy duties. In Nazaré, Canon Nobre Pelinca was elected judge of the Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament by the freemasons. . D. Vital transfers him to the parish of Goiana, and he takes refuge in Rio de Janeiro, in the shadow of the mason-infested Court. In 1873, Father Antônio Dias da Costa, vicar of Goiana is suspended from his duties. In the same week, the Bishop suspends Dean Joaquim Francisco de Faria. It was a real blast. Dean Faria, Principal of the Pernambuco Lycee, who was a respected politician and who had been capitular vicar in two vacancies of the diocese, was one of the heads of Liberal Masonic Party. He convened a meeting to protest against the Bishop’s Act and against the Jesuits, who were considered, with good reason, friends of the Bishop, but wrongly, like his aides in all disciplinary measures. After listening to the word of the Dean, the crowd headed for the Colleg São Francisco Xavier of the Jesuits, which was not much far from the Pernambuco Lycee. The attack against the College was violent. In an instant, the rioters penetrated everywhere, smashed the furniture and physically assaulted eight Jesuits. The boarders, terrified, fled and jumped the walls to take refuge in neighboring houses. They destroyed the Chapel and just not desecrated the altar where the Santum was because a group of ladies, who were in worship, defended it with their own bodies. Then, the crowd of fanatic freemasons went to the offices of the Catholic newspaper “União”, burned all the flammable material and threw the typographical machines into the Capibaribe River.

Freemasonry decided then to crush the resistance of the Bishop. To show their strength, they published with great fanfare through their newspaper “A Verdade,” the names of the Freemasons who were at the same time priests or members of the brotherhoods and fraternities, and some of them employed as judges, treasurers, Secretaries, therein. One of them, the Grand Master Aires de Albuquerque Gama was immediately appointed judge of the brothers of Soledade, located about 80 steps from the Episcopal Palace. He was a freemason Grand Master, writer in the Masonic newspaper, author of several articles against the hierarchy and the Church.

D. Vital saw that he could no longer conceal and ordered the brotherhoods to ask their members affiliated with the Freemasonry to forswear or be eliminated in case of pertinacity. As they did not comply with any exhortation and resisted to the Diocesan orders, he resorted to the canonical penalties, launching an interdict over the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament of Soledade and others.


The mason-infested brotherhoods appealed to the Crown against the Bishop. The Imperial Government, whose chief was the Viscount of Rio Branco, Grand Master of the Grand Orient, on June 12, 1875, summoned the diocesan bishop of Olinda to lift the interdict on the brotherhood of the Holly Sacrament of Recife. D. Vital did not yield.

The Council of State considered the interdict illegitimate, because the excommunication was based on papal Bulls that had not received the approval of the Brazilian civilian power. And because, in the Pastoral Letter of February 2nd, 1873, the Bishop denied the legitimacy of the blessing, therefore, he could incur the penalties of articles 79 and 81 of the Criminal Code which punished those who resorted to the Roman Curia or to the Nunciature without a prior government license.

The Bishop of Olinda, accused before the Supreme Court for these reasons was arrested and taken to the Arsenal of the Navy in Recife, on January 2nd, 1874. The dignified and firm figure of the Brazilian Prelate deserved in the hearts of the Brazilian people a gesture of imperishable admiration.

At the session of the trial, volunteered spontaneously to defend him the counselor Zacarias de Góis e Vasconcelos and Senator Cândido Mendes de Almeida, who produced an impeccable defense. However, the condemnation of d. Vital was already predetermined. The Court dismissed  all judges considered as Catholics. He was sentenced to four years of imprisonment with forced labour. By a Decree of March 12th, the sentence was commuted to simple imprisonment at the Fortress of São João in Rio.

Predicting the events, the Bishop already chose, on December 31st, three pious priests to replace him as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd governors of the Diocese, successively. They were: Canon José Joaquim Camelo de Andrade, Father Sebastian Constantine de Medeiros and Father Joaquim Graciano de Araújo. The prediction of the Bishop took place. Each of the elected governors was imprisoned and sentenced to the same penalty that the Bishop for refusing to lift the interdict.

To compel the Bishop to recant, the Rio Branco Ministry called for repressive measures more and more unjust and clamorous. Saldanha Marinho, on behalf of Freemasonry, wrote articles increasingly tasteless in favor of the Ministry, insisting on demoralizing the Catholic Church.

Rio Branco conferred at length with d. Pedro II, and issued several orders to Governor Lucena in Recife, determining the deportation of the Jesuits from Pernambuco to Lisbon. The priests who spoke in favor of the Bishop had their pay suspended.

Minister João Alfredo, despite being a cousin of d. Vital, was a staunch Freemason and created the worst cases against the diocese of Olinda. He suspended the payment of the teachers of the Seminary of Olinda and the grant due to the students.

Another victim of Freemasonry was the Bishop of Belém do Pará and then the Archbishop of Bahia, Dom Macedo Costa, who was accused of the equivalent “crimes” and sentenced to the same penalty as D. Vital.

The national and international public reaction was such that the Rio Branco Ministry fell. The Emperor had to choose the Duque de Caxias to head the new Cabinet. Caxias conditioned the acceptance of the Ministry to the grant of amnesty to the two bishops.

Luiz Inácio de Lima e Silva, Duke of Caxias, was also a Freemason, but less sectarian and more Objectivist. He convinced the Emperor that the solution of unconditional amnesty of the prelates was the only measure capable of preventing a more acute crisis.

On September 17, 1875, the decree was signed that put an end to painful “Religious Question,” which had for three years agitated the country and completely undermined the existence of the monarchy itself.

The one that emerged victorious from this painful question was the Church, which by forcing the Government to back off, left the royalist state demoralized and Freemasonry completely shaken in its prestige. D. Vital passed to the posterity as the martyr of Freemasonry.

The attacks of the Masonic press still continued, but the clergy, wary, emerged purged and purified.

The Company of Jesus, which was persecuted because of the faithfulness to the diocesan bishop, also emerged victorious. D.Vital’s Secretary, Father José Afonso de Lima e Sá, who accompanied him throughout the time in prison and then accompanied him in Europe, entered the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1892. Father Sebastian Constantino de Medeiros, who was the second Governor of the bishopric during the arrest of D.Vital, and suffered the same punishment as the Bishop, also entered the Society of Jesus, in 1878, in Rome, where he remained a professor at the College Pius Latinus, until his death.

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