The Brazilian ecclesiastical elite

Alexandre Cozens, A Big Tree Over Water, s/d.


Comment about the book The Brazilian Ecclesiastical Elite 1890-1930, by Sergio Miceli

In one of his articles published in the defunct “Suplemento Literário” by The State of S. Paul film critic and professor Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916-1977) wrote that, for many years, he was not interested in national cinema and, in particular, in the material and social conditions that made this cinema present itself in the way it did at the time. featured. And he highlighted that for him, as well as for several other critics and scholars of Brazilian cinema, the commissions and working groups that were constituted throughout the 50s had above all a school function, allowing them to understand the material and social constraints referred to here. . “His mission”, he wrote, “was to spread the bitter but exalting taste of reality” (“The Taste of Reality”, December 31, 1960).

And it is this attitude of attachment to reality, of systematic investigation of sources, that has always characterized the research of Sergio Miceli, a retired professor in the Department of Sociology at USP. Among his vast production, I highlight his study dedicated to the prelates of the Catholic Church, The Brazilian Ecclesiastical Elite: 1890-1930, a concise book with precious iconographic material, designed by Diana Mindlin.

Originally presented as a senior thesis in Sociology at Unicamp, the work discusses, over six chapters, the transition from the padroado regime to a new one. status political under the republican regime, indicates sources for the study of this elite and analyzes the organizational expansion of the Church and the “state-owned” of the ecclesiastical power. The volume is completed by a chapter referring to the social matrices of the episcopate – presenting the prelates of the imperial aristocracy, the bishops of the decadent patriciate and the sons of the Church –, another in which the way in which the organizational production of prelates takes place is studied, and ending with the diocesan management in the First Republic (1889-1930).

The work is a powerful antidote against much of the academic and/or organizational literature “which lacks a more fruitful contact with the available sources for an empirically grounded reconstruction of the history of the Church”. The author points out that countless texts are based on classic contributions, “but whose treatment of some 'canonical' questions is demanding a complete revision”. One of the most serious points in this sense resides in the pessimism regarding the First Republic Period, becoming practically accepted by all that the separation between State and Church (1890) represented the beginning of a “period of darkness” in relation to “the political firepower of the ecclesiastical corporation, extending until the institutional rebirth in the first Vargas period, which coincides with the centralizing management of Cardinal Leme” (p. 152).

However, Miceli makes it clear that things happened quite differently from what was advocated by established historiography, demonstrating that, keeping the differences in organizational style and political weight, the Catholic Church went through a period of “institutional construction” similar to that experienced by the Army in the First World War. Republic. Thus, the Catholic Church achieved considerable success on many fronts: “it stabilized its sources of revenue and recovered its real estate assets, rebuilt and 'modernized' its formation houses and seminaries, considerably dynamized its territorial presence, 'moralized', professionalized and expanded its staff (...), diversified the range of school services, which it practically monopolized, entered into alliances with state oligarchic factions, in short, the Catholic Church became viable as a religious enterprise and as a bureaucratic organization. Such conquests soon demonstrated their effectiveness as the Church began to operate in a prominent opposition at the center of national political life throughout the 30s and 40s” (p. 153). If all this is ignored, that is, the maturation of the set of investments and successful ventures carried out in the 25 or 30 years after the separation, “it would be practically unthinkable that the ecclesiastical corporation could come to exercise the degree of influence and authority or the to be able to operate at identical levels of pressure capacity as it has been acting since the so-called 'crucial years' of 1930-35, passing through the constitutional period of the 50s that motivated the creation of the CNBB (p. 154).

Some other relevant points explored by Miceli deserve to be highlighted. The first concerns the establishment of a solid network of alliances and relationships between the high clergy and the emerging oligarchic leaderships at state and municipal levels. This was necessary for the survival of the corporation, since having lost its official status as a “branch of public administration”, “deprived of the privileges inherent to the condition of a subsidized corporation and without being able to count on the support of any important segment in the coalition at the head of the new republican regime, the holders of decision-making posts in the high hierarchy concentrated their efforts and investments in the closest area of ​​influence” (p.67). The policy of “statalization” of ecclesiastical power was implemented in the “key points” of the Brazilian territory, with the creation of 56 new dioceses, of which 36 (65%) were concentrated in the North/Northeast, in Minas Gerais and São Paulo, “ regions” considered strategic either because they faced schismatic movements in the Church (for example, Canudos and Juazeiro), or because they held great political and economic importance.

Another point to be highlighted refers to the social profile of the episcopate, perhaps the best chapter in the book. Catholic bishops in the First Republic were divided into three categories. In the first were the children of the old families linked to the imperial aristocracy, still endowed with a powerful material ballast and a considerable amount of prestige and honor. A second and numerous contingent of prelates came from the impoverished or declining branches of rural patriarchy – “these bankrupt heirs generally depend on maternal intercession to obtain free places in prestigious religious colleges or to attend diocesan seminars” (p.90). Finally, there are the so-called sons of the church, a restricted share of positions in the upper hierarchy that finally ended up with elders from humble origins.

They owe everything they have achieved to the protection and permanent subsidies of the Ecclesiastical organization, since from an early age they found themselves in a situation of complete helplessness, after the death of their parents or the loss of the family's material support. Such information was obtained by consulting repertoires, bibliographic dictionaries, biographies, memoirs and correspondence, polianteias, a vast bibliography related to Ecclesiastical history and, also, to the habilitation processes “de genere et moribus” – which were assembled to investigate the social origins and moral background of future clergy members.

I would like to point out that Miceli explains the non-direct involvement of the Church in political affairs as a result of the pure and simple loss of power. In fact, the Catholic Church opted for a strategy of staying on the side of state and local power, recruiting members of prestigious groups into its ranks and legitimizing oligarchic power “through the staging of festive solemnities for the enthronement of patron saint images. s, outdoor masses, processions and other occasions conducive to the consecration of leaders and their deeds”, such as baptisms, weddings, confirmations, etc.” (p. 149).

Much could still be said about (and about) The Brazilian Ecclesiastical Elite. However, it is not too much to remember that since his first book, Godmother's Night (1972), Sergio Miceli has always sought to resort to empirical sources, researching how domination mechanisms are produced and reproduced in localized sectors of Brazilian social formation. After reading his work on the prelates of the Catholic Church, a passage from an article by Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) came to mind. Based on the criticism of “one of the hereditary flaws of French intellectual life, the essayism”, Bourdieu attacks the Philosophy with capital letters”, stating that “talking about Devices with a capital A, of State or Law or School, making Concepts the subjects of historical action, is to avoid getting one’s hands dirty in empirical research, reducing history to a kind of gigantomachy where the State faces the Proletariat or, at the limit, the Struggles, the modern Erinyes” (Questions of Sociology, p. 59). This is certainly not the case with Miceli's books, always impregnated with that “bitter but exalting taste of reality”, referred to by Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes.

*Afrânio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.


BOURDIEU, Pierre. Sociology Questions. Rio de Janeiro: Ground Zero, 1983 (

MICELI, Sergio. The Brazilian Ecclesiastical Elite: 1890-1930. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1988. Originally published in the “Saturday Notebook” of the Jornal da Tarde on 25.02.1989, p. 7 (

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