The Catholic Church in Brazil is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope in Rome, and the influential National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (Portuguese: Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil - CNBB), composed by over 400 primary and auxiliary bishops and archbishops. There are over 250 dioceses and other territorial jurisdictions in Brazil. The primate of Brazil is Dom Murilo Ramos Krieger.
The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the country, where 130 million people, or 64.6% of the Brazilian population, are self-declared Catholics. These figures makes Brazil the single country with the largest Catholic community in the world.
According to the tradition, the first Mass celebrated in Brazil took place on Easter Sunday of the year 1500.It was celebrated by a priest who arrived in the country along with the Portuguese explorers to claim possession of the newfound land. However, the first diocese in Brazil was only erected more than 50 years later, in 1551.
Brazil's strong Catholic heritage can be traced to the Iberian missionary zeal, with the 15th-century goal of spreading Christianity. The Church missions began to hamper the government policy of exploiting Natives. In 1782 the Jesuits were suppressed, and the government tightened its control over the Church.
Catholicism was enforced during colonial rule, then in 1824 became the official religion of an independent Brazil that also guaranteed freedom of religion for its citizens. The Brazilian government has been secular since the Constitution of 1891, though the Church remained extremely politically influential until nowadays. In the late 19th century, the Catholic population of Iberian origin was reinforced by a large number of Italian Catholics who immigrated to Brazil, as well as some Polish and German Catholic immigrants. In 1889 Brazil became a republic and approved a constitution separating the Church from the State, a trend followed by all of the country's seven republican constitutions. Prior to that, during the Empire of Brazil, Catholicism was the official religion of the country. In practice, however, separation of Church and state in the country is very weak; government officials generally avoid taking action that may offend the Church.
A recent example of the Church's influence over political questions was the change conducted by the federal government in the Third National Program of Human Rights in regard to its proposal to legalize abortion, after pressure from the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. That particular change, along with others, was denounced by the Amnesty International. Nevertheless, the government kept issues that upset the Church in the Program, such as its support for same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption.
In the late 20th century the Church's liberation theology movement, which focuses on the poor as the primary recipients of Christ's message, helped in the quest for social justice. The church organized Ecclesiastical Base Communities throughout the country to work for social and political causes at the local level. Despite the support of the higher clergy to the military, the progressive wing managed to make the Church practically the only legitimate focus of resistance and defense of basic human rights during military rule. When then Cardinal Ratzinger became responsible for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he launched a successful campaign against the liberation theology, and the conservative wing of the Church gained power. Catholics then saw the rise of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, as a way to counter the rapid growth of Pentecostal Protestantism in the country. According to Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “pentecostalism no longer is something confined outside the Roman Catholic Church, it is now firmly within the form of various charismatic tendencies and movements”.
During his five-day visit to Brazil on May 2007 Pope Benedict XVI canonized Frei Galvão, who became the first Brazilian-born saint. Both the Pope's visit and the canonisation aimed at reinvigorating the local church. Brazil was also the first foreign country visited by Benedict's successor Pope Francis.
According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than 60% of the urban population of Brazil claims a Catholic affiliation. Religious syncretism is widespread among Brazilian Catholics. There is an overlay of Afro-Brazilian religions (like Candomblé, Quimbanda and Umbanda) with Catholic beliefs and practices, which many Catholic Brazilians do not find inconsistent with their faith. An example is the Feast of Bonfim, a ritual in which mães-de-santo gather to wash the stairs of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador, Bahia. Catholics are far more likely to believe in good luck charms, fortune-tellers, faith-healers and astrology than converts to Protestantism.
More than one out of five of those who were raised Catholics leave the church, most of them to join the group of those with no religious affiliation and Protestantism. However, Catholicism has the highest rate of retention. More than two-fifths of those who were raised Protestant are no longer Protestant; the Catholic Church picks up 16% of those who were raised Protestants.
Religious change in Brazil is frequent. According to polling institute Datafolha, as of July 2013, approximately 57% of those aged over 16 years old were Catholic, while evangelicals constituted 28%.
According to America Magazine, Brazilian Catholics have the highest score in the world on the image of God as loving and as mother. They are also more likely to see human nature as good rather than corrupt, and the world as good rather than evil. Brazilian Catholics are less likely to believe in the literal, word-for-word interpretation of the Bible than Protestants. They are also more likely to accept premarital sex, cohabitation before marriage, homosexuality and abortion. About 40% attend Masses at least once a month—approximately the same level as that of American Catholics. Almost 75% pray every day, but only 12% engage in Church activities; only 26% say they are "very religious".
By race, 66.4% of whites are Catholic, along with 58.2% of blacks, 59.9% of East Asians, 64.1% of browns, and 50.7% of American Indians.
As the largest Catholic country in the world, Catholic education has a great tradition in Brazil. The Society of Jesus founded the first schools in the country, with the aim of evangelizing Native-Brazilians. In the late 18th century, Portuguese minister Marquis of Pombal attacked and expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and its overseas possessions. He seized the Jesuit schools and introduced educational reforms all over the Empire. Since then, public schools have been secular, but private Catholic schools are among the best in the country.
According to the Ministry of Education, there are more than 30 Catholic universities in Brazil. The first was the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, founded by Marist Brothers on 1931. The Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro is the best private university in the country, and behind only the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in the State of Rio de Janeiro. The Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais had been chosen by the Ministry as the best private university, and the best in the state of Minas Gerais, the previous year. In 1969, the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo became the first higher education institute in Brazil to offer a post-graduation course.