News Analysis

Brazil’s bishops nervously await Bolsonaro’s first moves

Jair Bolsonaro (Getty)

The president-elect won the support of ordinary Christians, but Catholic bishops may prove his biggest foes

Jair Bolsonaro entered office at the end of October, much helped by support from Christian voters. He courted both Catholics and Brazil’s growing number of Evangelicals, styling himself as an upholder of Christian family values, and an opponent of abortion, same-sex marriage and gay adoption. He also criticised gay and gender-fluid ideologies being taught in schools. But will his presidency match his presidential campaign?

Just after Bolsonaro’s election victory, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, the bishops’ conference general secretary, said the bishops were “worried” about the president-elect, specifically about his position towards indigenous tribes in the Amazon, as he had promised business leaders to allow further industrial development there.

Prior to being elected, Bolsonaro had discussed merging the department for the environment with the agriculture department. But after protests at the obvious conflict of interest, he has decided to keep the two separate.

He has appointed as foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, a Catholic who praises Donald Trump and the theories of Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon about the “Judeo-Christian” foundations of civilisation. Araújo, who was previously ambassador for Brazil in the US, is a proponent of Bannon’s belief that “only Christianity, and specifically Catholicism” can save the West. He repeats Bannon’s claim, saying that “only one God could still save the West, God operating through the nation”.

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro was a fierce opponent of a bill which he claimed would introduce gay propaganda into schools. Since his election, that bill has been amended to prohibit the teaching of “gender ideology”, or “gender”, or “sexual orientation”.

Bolsonaro wooed Christian voters, but he did not court the country’s Catholic bishops. On October 16, a video was released of Bolsonaro calling the Brazilian bishops’ conference the “rotten part of the Catholic Church”.

The bishops are seen as close to the left-wing Workers’ Party, whose presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad, was Bolsonaro’s closest rival. But not all of the bishops are Bolsonaro critics. Before the final round of votes, the candidate appeared with the Archbishop of Rio, Cardinal Orani João Tempesta – who had previously been supportive of him ­– and committed himself to defending life, the family and “the innocence of the child in the classroom”.

Photographs published by the Estadão newspaper showed employees of the archdiocese making gun signs with their hands – a gesture used by Bolsonaro in his campaign against crime.

Now Bolsonaro is in power, will the Church’s role be that of a backstop, as it was during the Brazilian junta, or of makepeace, as it has been during the bloody uprisings in Nicaragua?