Religion in Portugal

Religion in Portugal
Interior of the Jerónimos Monastery, in Lisbon.

Portugal has no official religion. The most predominant religion in Portugal is Roman Catholicism. Approximately 84% of the population of Portugal is nominally Catholic, though only about 19% attend mass and take the sacraments regularly, while a larger number wish to be baptized, married in a church, and receive Last Rites.[1]

Although Church and State were formally separated during the Portuguese First Republic (1910–1926), a separation reiterated in the constitution of 1976, Roman Catholic precepts continue to have a significant bearing in Portuguese society and culture. Many Portuguese holidays, festivals, and traditions have a religious origin or connotation. The educational and health care systems were for a long time the Church's preserve, and in many cases, whenever a building, bridge, or highway was opened, it received a blessing from the Clergy. Although Church and State are formally separate, the Catholic Church still receives certain privileges in spite of continuing opposition from left-wing political parties. Statistically, religious practice increases with increasing age, the younger generations showing less evidence of religious practice than the older.



As in most provinces of the Roman Empire, the religious beliefs and deities of the Pre-Roman populations mingled and coexisted with Roman mythology. In the Portuguese case, those Pre-Roman religions where basically Proto-Celtic or Celtic, chief amongst them that of the Lusitanians' (see Lusitanian mythology).

The Roman Provinces of Lusitania (comprising most of Portugal south of the Douro river) and of Gallaecia (north of the Douro river) were first Christianized while part of the Roman Empire. During this period, Bracara Augusta (the modern city of Braga) became one of the most important episcopal centres, alongside Santiago de Compostela. Christianity was solidified when the Suevi and the VisigothsGermanic tribes already Christianized — came into the Iberian Peninsula in the fifth century. Early Visigoths followed the Arian heresy, but they joined Roman mainstream after the eighth century. The city of Braga played an important role in the religious history of the period, namely when of the renunciation of the Arian and Priscillianist heresies, at two synods held there in the sixth century, marking the origin of its ecclesiastical greatness. The Archbishops of Braga retains the title of Primate of Portugal, and long claimed supremacy over the whole of the churches of Hispania.

Braga had an important role in the Christianization of the whole Iberian Peninsula. The first known bishop of Braga, Paternus, lived in the end of the fourth century, although Saint Ovidius (d. 135 AD) is sometimes considered one of the first bishops of this city.[2] In the early fifth century, Paulus Orosius, a friend of Saint Augustine, born in Braga, wrote several theological and historical works of great importance. In the sixth century, a great figure was Saint Martin of Braga, a bishop of Braga who converted the Suevi from Arianism to Catholicism. He also founded an important monastery near Braga, in Dumio (Dume), now an archaeological site. Several Ecumenical Councils were held in Braga during this period, a sign of the religious importance of the city.

Christianity saw its importance diminish in southern Portugal during Moorish rule in the Al-Andalus period, beginning in 711 with the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, even if most of the population still followed Christianity according to the Mozarabic Rite. In the north, however, Christianity provided the cultural and religious cement that helped hold Portugal together as a distinctive entity, at least since the reconquest of Porto in 868 by Vímara Peres, the founder of the First County of Portugal. 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 Catholic Church pre-dated the establishment of the Portuguese nation, a point that shaped relations between the two.

Under Afonso Henriques (r. 1139–1185), the first king of Portugal and the founder of the Portuguese Kingdom, 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, and was as such recognized in 1179 through the papal bull Manifestis Probatum. The King found the Church to be a useful ally as he drove the Moors towards the South. For its support of his policies, Afonso richly rewarded the Church by granting it vast lands and privileges in the conquered territories. 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 Catholic Church were generally amiable and stable, their relative power fluctuated. In the 13th and 14th centuries, 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 (see, for example, Kingdom of Kongo).

In 1497, reflecting events that had occurred five years earlier in Spain, Portugal expelled the Jews and the few remaining Moors — or forced them to convert. In 1536, the Pope gave King João III (r. 1521–1257) permission to establish the Portuguese Inquisition 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, anti-Church sentiment became strong. The Marquês de Pombal (r. 1750–1777) expelled the Jesuits in 1759, broke relations with the Holy See in Rome, and brought education under the State's control. Pombal was eventually removed from his office, and many of his reforms were undone, but anti-Clericalism 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 anti-Clericalism emerged with the establishment of the Portuguese 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, the Estado Novo.

Salazar Regime

Under the Estado Novo dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (r. 1928–1968), the Church experienced a revival. Salazar was himself deeply religious and infused with Catholic precepts. Before studying law, he had been a seminarian; his roommate at the University of Coimbra, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, later became Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon. In addition, Salazar's corporatist principles and his constitution and labour statute of 1933 were infused with Roman Catholic precepts from the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

Salazar's state claimed to base itself on the principles of traditional Roman Catholicism, with an emphasis on order, discipline, and authority. Class relations were supposedly based on harmony rather than the Marxist concept of conflict. The family, the parish, and Christianity were said to be the foundations of the State. Salazar went considerably beyond these principles, however, and established a full-fledged dictatorship. His corporative State, in the opinion of some, contained about equal blends of Roman Catholic principles and Benito Mussolini-like fascism.

In 1940, a Concordat governing Church-State relations was signed between Portugal and the Vatican. The Church was to be "separate" from the State but to enjoy a special position. The Concordat of 1940 reversed many of the anticlerical policies adopted during the First Republic, and the Catholic Church was given exclusive control over religious instruction in the public schools. Only Catholic clergy could serve as chaplains in the armed forces. Divorce, which had been legalized by the republic, was made illegal for those married in a Church service, but remained legal with respect to civil marriage. The Church was given formal "juridical personality," enabling it to incorporate and hold property.

Under Salazar, critics believe that Church and State in Portugal maintained a comfortable and mutually reinforcing relationship. While assisting the Church in many ways, however, Salazar insisted that it stay out of politics — unless it praised his regime. Dissent and criticism were forbidden; those clergy who stepped out of line — an occasional parish priest and once the Bishop of Porto — were silenced or forced to leave the country. The rest of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, led by Cardinal Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, a great friend and supporter of Salazar, remained silent on the issue.

Changes after the Revolution of 1974

In the Portuguese Constitution of 1976, after the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and the transition to democracy, Church and State were again formally separated. The Church continues to have a special place in Portugal, but for the most part, it has been disestablished. Other religions are now free to organize and practice their beliefs.

In addition to constitutional changes, Portugal became a more secular society. Traditional Roman Catholicism flourished while Portugal was overwhelmingly poor, rural, and illiterate, but as the country became more urban, literate, and secular, the practice of religion declined. The number of men becoming priests fell, as did charitable offerings and attendance at mass. By the early 1990s, most Portuguese still considered themselves Roman Catholic in a vaguely cultural and religious sense, but only about one-third of them attended mass regularly. Indifference to religion was most likely among men and young people. Regular churchgoers were most often women and young children.

The Church no longer had its former social influence. During the 19th century and on into the Salazar regime, the Church was one of the most powerful institutions in the country — along with the Army and the social and economic elite. In fact, military, economic, governmental, and religious influences in Portugal were closely intertwined and interrelated, often literally so. Traditionally, the first son of elite families inherited land, the second went into the army, and the third became a bishop. By the early 1990s, however, the Roman Catholic Church no longer enjoyed this pre-eminence but had fallen to seventh or eighth place in power among Portuguese interest groups.

By the 1980s, the Church seldom tried to influence how Portuguese voted, knowing such attempts would probably backfire. During the height of the revolutionary turmoil in the mid-1970s, the Church urged its communicants to vote for centrist and conservative candidates and to repudiate communists, especially in northern Portugal, but after that the Church refrained from such an overt political role.

The Church was not able to prevent the enactment of the constitution of 1976, which separated Church and State, nor could it block legislation liberalizing divorce or abortion, issues it regarded as moral and within the realm of its responsibility.

Religious practices

The image of Our Lady of Fátima present in the Chapel of Apparitions at the Fátima Shrine.

The practice of religion in Portugal has shown striking regional differences. Even in the early 1990s, 60 to 70 percent of the population in the traditionally Catholic North regularly attended religious services, compared with 10 to 15 percent in the historically anti-clerical South. In the Greater Lisbon Area, about 30 percent were regular churchgoers.

The traditional importance of 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 village. Many of the churches and chapels were built in the 16th century at the height of Portugal's colonial expansion, 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 were 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 is popular. The most famous religious event in Portugal has been the claimed apparition of the Virgin Mary to three children in the village of Fátima in 1917. The apparition of Our Lady of Fátima in this small village in the district of Santarém has led hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to visit the Shrine at Fátima each year, many in the hope of receiving healing.

Rural Portuguese have often sought to establish a close and personal relationship with their saints. Believing God to be a remote and inaccessible figure, they petitioned patron saints to act as intermediaries. This system of patronage resembled that operating in the secular realm. To win their saint's goodwill, believers presented the saint with gifts, showed that they gave alms to the poor, and demonstrated upright behaviour, hoping that the saint might intercede on their behalf with God.

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

The Roman Catholic Church sometimes criticized religious folk practices for dividing people from their God. The Church could not monitor all folk customs, however, and such practices continued even in the 1990s. Moreover, the Church recognized that many Portuguese felt at least as much loyalty to their saints and customary religious practices as they did to the more formal church. For these reasons, it was not unusual that the Church tolerated and sometimes even encouraged these practices as a way of maintaining popular adherence to Roman Catholicism.

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

As people became better educated and moved to the city, they lost some of these folk beliefs. But in the city and among educated persons alike, superstition could still be found, even in the early 1990s. Sorcerers, palm readers, and readers of cards had shops, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, but not exclusively so. In short, a strong undercurrent of superstition still remained in Portugal. The formal Church disapproved of superstitious practices but was powerless to do much about them.

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

Other non-Catholic religious groups

For most of Portugal's history, few non–Roman Catholics lived in the country; those who did could not practice their religion freely. They had been kept out of the country for three centuries by the Inquisition. However, the British began settling in Portugal in the nineteenth century brought other Christian denominations with them. Most belonged to the Anglican Church of England, but others were Protestant Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1834 granted limited religious toleration, and consequently led to the opening of an Anglican chapel in Lisbon. A second chapel was opened in 1868. The Anglican mission coincided with the growing influence of the Old Catholic movement in Portugal. Congregations were created from Roman Catholic priests and laypeople who refused to accept the dogmas of the infallibility and universal ordinary jurisdiction of the Pope, as defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870. The Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Evangelical Church‎ was formed as a result in 1880 (and has been a member church of the Anglican Communion since 1980); however, laws still restricted the activities of non–Roman Catholics.

By the early 1990s, only some 50,000 to 60,000 Anglicans and Protestants lived in Portugal, less than 1 percent of the total population. 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. Non–Roman Catholic groups came to be recognized as legal entities with the right to assemble. Portuguese who were both not Roman Catholics and were 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 missionary activities.


Portugal's Muslim community consisted of a small number of immigrants from Portugal's former colonies in Africa, namely Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and small numbers of recent immigrant workers from Northern Africa, mainly Morocco. In the 1991 census the number of Muslims in Portugal was under 10,000. The main Mosque in Portugal is the Lisbon Mosque.

The first Bahá'í visitor to Portugal was in 1926.[3] Its first Bahá'í Local Spiritual Assembly was elected in Lisbon in 1946.[3] In 1962 the Portuguese Bahá'ís elected their first National Spiritual Assembly.[4] In 1963 there were nine assemblies.[5] According to recent counts there are close to some 2000 members of the Bahá'í Faith in 2005 according to the Association of Religion Data Archives (relying on World Christian Encyclopedia).[6] See Bahá'í Faith in Portugal.

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 the twentieth century Portugal had no synagogue or even regular Jewish religious services (the Lisbon Synagogue was founded in 1904). 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 are a few villages where Marranos, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution and whose religion was a mixture of Judaism and Christianity, still exist (see Belmonte Jews).

Atheism and agnosticism

There are between 420,960 to 947,160 (4 to 9% of total population) atheists and agnostics,[7] according to other sources 6.5% of the population.[8]


  1. ^ "Portugal está mais secularizado do que a Espanha". Diário Ateísta. 18 January 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-04-28. 
  2. ^ Santi Beati
  3. ^ a b Moreira, Rute (2001-01-13). "Comunidade Bahá'í em Portugal". Correio da Manhã. Retrieved 2010-05-03. 
  4. ^ Smith, Peter (2004). Bahá'ís in the West. Kalimat Press. pp. 22, 36–38. ISBN 9781890688110. 
  5. ^ Compiled by Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land. "The Bahá'í Faith: 1844-1963: Information Statistical and Comparative, Including the Achievements of the Ten Year International Bahá'í Teaching & Consolidation Plan 1953-1963". pp. 109. 
  6. ^ "Most Baha'i Nations (2005)". QuickLists > Compare Nations > Religions >. The Association of Religion Data Archives. 2005. Retrieved 2010-05-03. 
  7. ^ Zuckerman (2005). "The Largest Atheist / Agnostic Populations". Retrieved 2007-04-28. 
  8. ^ "7 HIV-AIDS Virtual Congress". 2002. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-04-28. 

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