— São Paulo — As the number of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic grows in Brazil, Catholic Church leaders including bishops are gradually raising their voices against President Jair Bolsonaro and his controversial management of the crisis.
Since mid-June, when the South American country reached 500,000 deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, the episcopal conference and a number of bishops have expressed their criticism on Bolsonaro’s erratic policies concerning the pandemic, at times with a fierce choice of words.
From the beginning, Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the disease and rejected the adoption of nationally imposed social distancing measures, criticizing State governors and city mayors who have decreed partial lockdowns. He has attended his supporters’ public gatherings numerous times, usually failing to a wear a face mask.
Critics say Bolsonaro also has put in doubt scientists’ and healthcare experts’ recommendations, has promoted ineffective medicines to treat Covid-19 (especially chloroquine and ivermectin) and has taken too long to buy vaccines, which resulted in a slow vaccination rollout. Till now, only 13 percent of the Brazilians have received two shots of the vaccine.
The most recent manifestation was from Father Lino Allegri of Fortaleza, in Ceará State. On July 4, the 82-year-old Italian-born priest affirmed during Mass that Brazil has already seen “more than half a million deaths, and the person who holds the most important office in the country claims to be Christian, but hasn’t proved to be so,” according to the local newspaper O Povo.
“You’ve seen that last week the President attended a celebration and received Communion. I think he received as his communion his own condemnation. Because there is a part in the Bible that says that the one who eats the Lord’s bread or drink from the Lord’s cup in an unworthy way, eats and drinks his or her own condemnation,” he said, referring to Bolsonaro’s attendance at a Mass in Brasília on July 1.
“He is unworthy because there’s no love for the other,” Allegri added. After the celebration, a group of eight enraged pro-Bolsonaro churchgoers broke into the sacristy and aggressively demanded an explanation from the priest. One of them told Allegri to go back to Italy. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion had to take the group out of the church to avoid further disruption.
Most criticism of Bolsonaro by the clergy is met with strong reactions from his supporters, particularly on social media. But data show support for the president could be on the wane. A recent poll showed that 62.5 percent of the Brazilians disapprove of his performance. Only 26.6 percent of the people intend to reelect him next year.
At the same time, the left-wing opposition to his administration has been organizing growing demonstrations for his immediate impeachment. The strongest motivation among protestors is his handling of Covid-19.
In this atmosphere, some bishops have become outspoken critics of the President. That is the case of Auxiliary Bishop Vicente Ferreira of Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais State. On June 14, he tweeted that Bolsonaro is a “Brazilian fascist” and asked God to deliver Brazilians from his “maladministration of death.”
Senhor, tu que fugiste de jegue para o Egito, mostra-nos um meio de nos livrar desse facista brasileiro. Tu que entraste em Jerusalém montado num jumento, dá-nos a coragem de enfrentar o tirano que mata nossa gente. Livra-nos, Senhor, do desgoverno da morte. Está pesado demais.
— Dom Vicente Ferreira (@DomVicenteF) June 14, 2021
In a statement issued on June 24 by the Diocese of Jales, in São Paulo State, Bishop Reginaldo Andrietta affirmed that the Covid-19 catastrophe could have been restrained, but the Federal Government “keeps neglecting the adequate measures.” The document said that the government’s “despise of the scientific community and of the World Health Organization” causes “indignation.”
On June 19, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (known as CNBB in Portuguese) launched a day of prayer and events in memory of the 500,000 victims of the disease. Churches all over the country rang their bells at 3 PM and churchgoers lit candles in honor of the deceased.
On the following day, the CNBB issued a joint statement with other civic organizations severely condemning the Bolsonaro administration for “the lack of national coordination in the fight against the pandemic.”
Titled Half a million lives lost, the document was signed by CNBB’s president, Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, and by the presidents of the Brazilian Press Association, Brazil’s National Bar Association, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and the Arns Commission for Human Rights Defense.
“It’s inexplicable, particularly in the case of the President of the Republic in the exercise of his constitutional attributions, the promotion of agglomerations with ideological and political objectives, something that incentivizes a social behavior that poses epidemiological risks,” the letter read.
CNBB’s statement also mentioned the creation of a parliamentary inquiry commission in the Senate that is investigating the Bolsonaro administration’s alleged misdeeds concerning the pandemic.
“The parliamentary inquiry commission created by the Senate is relevant and imperative as it probes a sea of information that converges to one certitude: denialism kills. May the commission, when it concludes its work, elucidate the truth of the facts for Brazilians, this way opening a new chapter in our democratic history,” it said.
According to the Italian-born Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia, there is a clear progression “from statements to concrete actions” by the Brazilian Church in relation to the Bolsonaro administration.
“The situation looks intolerable. In a country with a minimum level of democracy, the current state of affairs would have changed long ago,” he told the Catholic Herald.
Vasino argued that not only the pandemic, but also the rising prices of food and the general economic crisis generated an “alarming social depression” in Brazil, changing the mentality of populational segments that used to support Bolsonaro.
“In our region, an attitude of rejection to the government was impossible some time ago. Now, it’s clearly perceptible among the people,” he described.
In the opinion of Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Center of Faith and Culture, the Church has been following the “hegemonic political trend in society.”
“The people are increasingly standing against Bolsonaro, so the episcopate accompanies its flock. It’s not a matter of political opportunism, but of working in tune with their communities,” he told the Herald.
Given that Bolsonaro continues to be backed by part of the Catholics, some bishops and priests have been trying to defend him, but that group seems to be minoritarian now.
“Fundamentalist segments of the Catholic Church have been trying to protect him by questioning the truthfulness of the number of victims of Covid-19, for instance,” offered Daniel Seidel, CNBB’s Justice and Peace Commission’s Executive Secretary.
Seidel affirmed that many movements of laypeople have been taking part in demonstrations against Bolsonaro.
“Catholics are on the streets demanding vaccines for everybody, emergency relief aid till the end of the pandemic, and funds to fight hunger and unemployment,” Seidel explained.
Seidel argues that the Church is being called to take a stand in a very complex political moment. “But Pope Francis’s prophetic voice, followed by many bishops across the country, points to the necessary changes for Brazil right now,” he said.
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