Religion in Portugal


Portugal is profoundly Roman Catholic. There is a saying that "to be Portuguese is to be Catholic" and approximately 97 percent of the population considered itself Roman Catholic - the highest percentage in Western Europe. Only about one-third of the population attend mass and take the sacraments regularly, but nearly all Portuguese wish to be baptized and married in the church and to receive its last rites.

Church and State in Portugal

Portugal is Roman Catholic not only in a religious sense, but also socially and culturally. Although church and state were formally separated during the First Republic (1910-26), a separation reiterated in the constitution of 1976, the two still forming a seamless web in many areas of life. Catholic precepts historically undergird the society as well as politics. The traditional notions of authority, hierarchy, and accepting one's station in life all stemmed from Roman Catholic teachings.

Many Portuguese holidays and festivals have religious origins, and the country's moral and legal codes derive from Roman Catholic precepts. The educational and health care systems were long the church's preserve, and whenever a building, bridge, or highway was opened, it received the blessing of the clergy. Hence, although church and state are formally separated, absolute separation does not exist in practice.

History of Religion in Portugal

Portugal was first Christianized while part of the Roman Empire. Christianity was solidified when the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe already Christianized, came into the Iberian Peninsula in the fifth century. Christianity was nearly extinguished in southern Portugal during Moorish rule, but in the north it provided the cultural and religious cement that helped hold Portugal together as a distinctive entity. By the same token, Christianity was the rallying cry of those who rose up against the Moors and sought to drive them out. Hence, Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church predated the establishment of the Portuguese nation, a point that shaped relations between the two.

Under Afonso Henriques (r. 1139-85), the first king of Portugal and the founder of the Portuguese state, church and state were unified into a lasting and mutually beneficial partnership. To secure papal recognition of his country, Afonso declared Portugal a vassal state of the pope. The king found the church to be a useful ally as he drove the Moors toward the south and out of Portuguese territory. For its support of his policies, Afonso richly rewarded the church by granting it vast lands and privileges in the territories conquered from the Moors. The church became the country's largest landowner, and its power came to be equal to that of the nobility, the military orders, and even, for a time, the crown. But Afonso also asserted his supremacy over the church, a supremacy that--with various ups and downs--was maintained.

Although relations between the Portuguese state and the Roman Catholic Church were generally amiable and stable, their relative power fluctuated. In the 13th century and 14th century, the church enjoyed both riches and power stemming from its role in the reconquest and its close identification with early Portuguese nationalism. For a time the church's position vis-à-vis the state diminished until the growth of the Portuguese overseas empire made its missionaries important agents of colonization.

In 1497, reflecting events that had occurred five years earlier in Spain, Portugal expelled the Jews and the remaining Moors, or forced them to convert. In 1536 the pope gave King João III (r.1521-57) permission to establish the Inquisition in Portugal to enforce the purity of the faith. Earlier the country had been rather tolerant, but now orthodoxy and intolerance reigned. The Jesuit order was placed in charge of all education.

In the 18th century, antichurch sentiment became strong. The Marquês de Pombal (r.1750-77) expelled the Jesuits in 1759, broke relations with Rome, and brought education under the state's control. Pombal was eventually removed from his office, and many of his reforms were undone, but anticlericalism remained a force in Portuguese society. In 1821 the Inquisition was abolished, religious orders were banned, and the church lost much of its property.

Relations between church and state improved in the second half of the 19th century, but a new wave of anticlericalism emerged with the establishment of the First Republic in 1910. Not only were church properties seized and education secularized, but the republic went so far as to ban the ringing of church bells, the wearing of clerical garb on the streets, and the holding of many popular, religious festivals.

These radical steps antagonized many deeply religious Portuguese, cost the republic popular support, and paved the way for its overthrow and the establishment of a conservative right-wing regime.

Religious Practices in Portugal

The practice of religion in Portugal shows striking regional differences. Even in the early 1990s, 60 to 70 percent of the population in the traditionally Roman Catholic north regularly attended religious services, compared with 10 to 15 percent in the historically anticlerical south. In the greater Lisbon area, about 30 percent were regular churchgoers.

The traditional importance of Roman Catholicism in the lives of the Portuguese is evident in the physical organization of almost every village in Portugal. The village churches are usually in prominent locations, either on the main square or on a hilltop overlooking the villages. Many of the churches and chapels were built in the 16th century at the height of Portugal's colonial expansion and might and were often decorated with wood and gold leaf from the conquests. In recent decades, however, they were often in disrepair, for there were not enough priests to tend them. Many are used only rarely to honor the patron saints of the villages.

Much of the country's religious life has traditionally taken place outside the formal structure and official domain of the Roman Catholic Church. This is especially true in rural areas where the celebration of saints' days and religious festivals are popular. The most famous of Portuguese religious events is the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary to three children in 1917 in the village of Fátima in the province of Santarém. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have visited the shrine at Fátima in the belief that the pilgrimage could bring about healing.

Rural Portuguese often seek to establish a close and personal relationship with their saints. Believing God to be a remote and inaccessible figure, they petition patron saints to act as intermediaries. This system of patronage resembles that operating in the secular realm. To win their saint's goodwill, believers present the saint with gifts, show that they gave alms to the poor, and demonstrate upright behavior, hoping that the saint might intercede on their behalf with God.

Women tend to practice their religion more than men, as evidenced by church attendance. In addition, the Virgin Mary, who was the most popular of the spiritual mediators, is often revered more than Jesus and served as the patron of religious processions. The image of the Virgin, as well as that of Christ, are commonly displayed, even in labor union offices or on signs in demonstrations.

The Roman Catholic Church sometimes criticizes religious folk practices for dividing people from their God. The church could not monitor all folk customs, however, and such practices continue today. Moreover, the church recognizes that many Portuguese feel at least as much loyalty to their saints and customary religious practices as they do to the more formal church. For these reasons, it is not unusual that the church tolerates and sometimes even encourages these practices as a way of maintaining popular adherence to Roman Catholicism.

Other aspects of Portuguese folk religion are not approved by the official church, including witchcraft, magic, and sorcery. Formal religion, folk beliefs, and superstition are frequently jumbled together, and in the popular mind all are part of being Roman Catholic. Particularly in the isolated villages of northern Portugal, belief in witches, witchcraft, and evil spirits is widespread. Some persons believe in the concept of the "evil eye" and fear those who supposedly possess it. Again, women are the main practitioners. Almost every village has its "seers," practitioners of magic, and "healers." Evil spirits and even werewolves are thought to inhabit the mountains and byways, and it is believed that people must be protected from them. Children and young women were thought to be particularly vulnerable to the "evil eye."

As people become better educated and moved to the city, they lose some of these folk beliefs. But in the city and among educated persons alike, superstition can still be found today. Sorcerers, palm readers, and readers of cards have shops, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, but not exclusively so. In short, a strong undercurrent of superstition still remains in Portugal. The formal church disapproves of superstitious practices but was powerless to do much about them.

In contrast to that of Spain, Portuguese Catholicism was softer and less intense. The widespread use of folk practices and the humanization of religion makes for a loving though remote God, in contrast to the harshness of the Spanish vision. In Portugal, unlike Spain, God and his saints are imagined as forgiving and serene. In Spain the expressions depicted on the faces of saints and martyrs are painful and anguished; in Portugal they are complacent, calm, and pleasant.

Non-Catholic Religious Groups in Portugal

For most of Portugal's history, few non-Catholics lived in the country; those who did could not practice their religion freely. Until the constitution of 1976 was enacted, laws restricted the activities of non-Catholics.

By the early 1990s, only some 50,000 to 60,000 Protestants lived in Portugal, about 1 percent of the total population. They had been kept out of the country for three centuries by the Inquisition. However, the British who began settling in Portugal in the nineteenth century brought their religions with them. Most belonged to the Church of England, but others were Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. Protestantism remained largely confined to the foreign communities.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the arrival of Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom increased in numbers more rapidly than the earlier arrivals did. All groups, however, were hampered by prohibitions and restrictions against the free exercise of their religions, especially missionary activities.

These restrictions were lifted after the Revolution of 1974. The constitution of 1976 guarantees all religions the right to practice their faith. Protestant groups came to be recognized as legal entities with the right to assemble. Portuguese who were both Protestant and conscientious objectors had the right to apply for alternative military service. The Roman Catholic Church, however, still sought to place barriers in the way of Protestant missionary activities.

The Jewish community in Portugal numbered between 500 and 1,000 as of the early 1990s. The community was concentrated in Lisbon, and many of its members were foreigners. The persecution of Portuguese Jewry had been so intense that until recent decades Portugal had no synagogue or even regular Jewish religious services. The few Jewish Portuguese were hence isolated from the main currents of Judaism. Their community began to revive when larger numbers of foreign Jews (embassy personnel, business people, and technicians) began coming to Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s. In northern Portugal, there were a few villages of Marranos, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution and whose religion was a mixture of Judaism and Christianity.

Portugal's Muslim community consists of a small number of immigrants from Portugal's former colonies in Southern Africa, and larger numbers of recent immigrant workers from Northern Africa, mainly Morocco.

Article Sources

  1. "Portugal." (early 1990s)

Article by U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies (early 1990s). Last updated: July 26, 2013.