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Portuguese Religion: A Brief History of Portugal Part 2

A holy church in Fatima, Portugal

Portuguese religion has been a prominent aspect of the culture throughout the country’s history. Christianity and Catholicism have played a large role in the governance of the country, and the church still holds certain privileges today.

Check out Part 1 of our Brief History of Portugal series!

Establishment of Christianity

Since the founding of the official Kingdom of Portugal in 1139, the country has been predominantly Christian. The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, declared a unified church and state under Christianity. However, the Roman Empire had brought the religion to the area that would become Portugal even earlier.

Braga – S. Marcus church. Photo Turismo de Portugal – Jose Manuel

When the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, Christianity all but disappeared in the South. However, Northern Portugal remained devoutly Christian, and it was this belief that allowed a unification of the country after the defeat of the Moors. 

In order to maintain beneficial relations with the Roman Catholic church, Afonso Henriques declared Portugal a vassal state. This meant that the government of the country answered to the pope, should he choose to direct its leadership. In addition, the church helped drive the remaining Moors out of Portuguese territory, in exchange for large land deeds. 

As the Portuguese Empire grew, the church enjoyed the benefits of Portuguese expansion. The newly created Portuguese colonies allowed the Catholic church to spread religion through previously inaccessible areas.

The reconquista effort in Spain and the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition led to an effort to remove all Muslims and Jews from Spain, or force them to convert to Christianity. A few years later, beginning in 1497, the Portuguese state began to do the same thing. The Catholic church grew in power, as the pope allowed for the creation of a Portuguese Inquisition. The church now controlled most of the country, and became extremely intolerant.


Anti-church movement

The Marques de Pombal, who ruled Portugal from 1750 to 1777, supported a growing anti-religious movement. He removed the Jesuits from the country, returned education to state control rather than religious, and tried to put an end to Roman control. 

Although there was an attempt to undo Pombal’s reforms after his removal from office, the anti-church movement stayed strong. In 1821, Portugal abolished the Inquisition, removed religious leaders from positions of power, and took most of the land belonging to the church.

In 1910, the First Republic of Portugal was created. With its creation came the abolition of many religious institutions. The church seized church property, banned religion in schools, and even banned several popular religious festivals.

This move was widely unpopular with the remaining religious base in the country. A radical religious movement formed, and eventually lead to the installment of a conservative dictatorship.


Our Lady of Fatima


In 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in the countryside of Fatima, Portugal. The children saw Mary appear on the 13th of each month that summer, ending on October 13th. The Miracle of the Sun on October 13, 1917 attracted between 30,000  and 100,000 onlookers, who gave conflicting reports of what they saw. However, it was enough for the Catholic Church to officially verify the Marian apparitions in 1930. Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the site where Mary appeared to the children, and attend mass at the basilica there.


Religious Revival

In 1928, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar seized control of the country. For the next 40 years, Salazar would rule the country under his own beliefs in Roman Catholicism. His laws and governance methods found inspiration in his beliefs. Salazar declared that the foundations of the country would be the family, the church, and Christianity. 

MFA – Carnation revolution – 25 of April – Portugal

In 1940, Salazar signed an agreement with the Vatican granting the Catholic church certain powers within Portugal. This act served to undo many of the reforms that had been made starting in the 18th century. However, Salazar forbade the church from interfering in his politics. Like most dictators, he did not allow criticism of his regime.

In 1968, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar suffered a brain hemorrhage. When it appeared that he would not live much longer, Marcelo Caetano took over rule of the country. Salazar actually lived for another two years, under the belief that he was still in power. Many historians believe Salazar may never have known about his removal from office before his death. 

Caetano would not rule for long. In 1974, the Carnation Revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Portugal.


Return of Secularism

In 1976, with the creation of the new Portuguese constitution, the church and state separated once again. People are free to practice whatever religion they choose, though the country remains predominantly Christian. 

According to the 2011 census, over 80% of the country claimed to be Catholic, though the percentage of people who regularly attended mass and took sacraments was much lower. About 3% of the population practices other denominations of Christianity, and about 7% do not consider themselves religious. With the 9% who chose not to answer, only a fraction of a percentage of the country claimed to practice non-Christian religions.

Despite the separation of church and state, the Catholic church still receives privileges in Portugal under the Law on Religious Freedom. Many state-funded construction projects such as schools and bridges are officially blessed by the Catholic church.


Folk Religion

Portugal is still a highly superstitious country, often mixing traditional folk beliefs with religion. The most prominent superstition is belief in the evil eye, which inflicts bad luck on those it is cast upon. It is also considered bad luck to walk backwards, or to wear a hat to bed. On the other hand, it is lucky to accidentally spill wine on the table, or to have rain on your wedding day.


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