Father Paulo Ricardo is a very sympathetic man. Always smiling, he is tall, thin, and balding. His austere appearance reminds us of priests portrayed in the films of the 1960s. Father Paulo could easily pretend to be Dom Camilo, the wise Italian priest created by Giovannino Guareschi and immortalized in the cinema by the brilliant French actor Fernandel.
Like Dom Camilo, Father Paulo is a provincial priest, far from the axis of Rio de Janeiro – Sao Paulo, who lives in the Archdiocese of Cuiabá, in the remote center-west of Brazil. In practically everything, Father Paulo would be considered an ordinary man if it were not for one atypical fact: he is an internet celebrity. His videos on YouTube are watched by thousands of people, and his online courses are attended by Brazilians all over the country.
One more thing makes him stand out from much of the Brazilian Catholic world: Father Paulo is a sworn enemy of everything of the left dominance of Brazilian culture. He is an uncompromising advocate of orthodox Catholicism. Combining a solid intellectual formation with powerful oratory, this gentle-mannered priest has become a champion of various conservative causes, especially the struggle against the legalization of abortion. He has testified in the national Congress against Gender Ideology and at the Brazilian Supreme Court in defense of the sacred right to life. In this way, Father Paulo Ricardo is part of a movement largely unknown in Brazil ten years ago: politically conservative Catholics.
The Catholic Church has played a central role in Brazilian history. The Jesuits were the first group to arrive in that Portuguese colony on the newly discovered American continent. They helped build cities, evangelize natives, create schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and established public records.
During the period of the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889), the Catholic Church was a pillar of the monarchy. But when Catholic clergy clashed with the Emperor in 1875 over the role of Freemasonry in Brazil (Emperor Pedro II was the Grand Master of the Order in Brazil), it was a sign of the coming storm that overthrew the monarchy and created the republic.
Throughout the Republican period, the Church became the center of Brazilian spiritual and cultural life. When Marxism began to spread throughout the world, the Church rang the bell warning about the dangers of this atheistic ideology. Not even the atheist and positivist dictator Getulio Vargas dared to face the Church, preferring to accommodate Catholics in the structure of the corporatist state he had created. When Vargas left power in 1945, the Church quickly adapted itself to political disputes in a democratic society.
Things changed in Brazilian Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council. Liberation theology began to gain adherents. Those bishops who aligned themselves with this doctrine tried to marginalize orthodox Catholic clergy and embraced and promoted many leftist ideas. The archetype of this new Catholic Church was Dom Hélder Câmara known as “the Red Bishop”.
The liberation theology does not have a clear spiritual goal, it has political ones. Preaching the social revolution is not the best way to keep the laypeople attending the mass. The Catholic Church, in a state of spiritual crises, has seen many of its members giving up the missions of spreading God’s word. The evangelizing mission has been placed in a second or third place. The religious vacuum created has been fulfilled by other Christian churches. The effects of these changes upon Brazilian Catholics can be seen in the numbers. More than 90% of the Brazilian population identified itself as Catholic in 1980. Today just over 60% declare themselves to be Catholic and a large number are not active members.
In the 1990s an unknown philosopher and journalist found himself involved in a series of controversies that unfolded in the pages of some Brazilian newspapers. An inveterate smoker, Olavo de Carvalho does not mince his words when he is defending what he believes to be right. His style is combative and he directly questioned all the sacred cows of Brazilian leftism.
For a long time Carvalho was a one-man resistance but he opened many Brazilian eyes to the poison of cultural Marxism. Many discovered that it was possible to think outside of the leftist box. He introduced conservative thinkers such as Eric Voegelin and Roger Scruton to Brazilian audience. He also resurrected the great Catholic writer Otto Maria Carpeaux and rescued from oblivion a dozen Brazilian writers confined by the left.
Carvalho was one of the first to understand the power of the Internet and used it to spread the flame of political conservatism and Catholic orthodoxy. As a young atheist law student at a university where everybody was on the left, I learned about Catholicism through Carvalho’s writings, and I am not the only one whose life was changed by him. Hundreds of Catholics found in Carvalho a counselor and a light in the darkness. He organized online seminars on philosophy that led to the creation of an informal network of conservatives, mostly Catholics, who have steadily grown to confront the leftist establishment. Among his students was an until then unknown Catholic priest called Paulo Ricardo.
In a way, Carvalho is to the intellectual world what the leading candidate to be Brazilian next president Jair Bolsonaro is to the political world. Carvalho’s systematic criticism of all the icons of the left started an intellectual revolution that few outside Brazil are aware of. Many supporters of Bolsonaro and the candidate himself relentlessly repeat concepts that were shaped by Carvalho. When campaigning, for instance, Bolsonaro refers regularly to “cultural revolution,” “socialist threat,” “George Soros and Globalism”- all concepts put into vogue by Carvalho. There are so many overlaps between supporters of one and followers of the other that at least half a dozen people close to Carvalho were elected to Congress in the conservative wave that catapulted Bolsonaro to the status of presidential frontrunner.
This political earthquake has been preceded by a wave of renewal of Catholic belief and practice. Left-leaning bishops now find themselves dealing with laypeople who are well versed in Catholic teaching, who are asking bishops about the differences between what some Catholic clerics do and say and what the Church actually teaches. Being Catholic and conservative has become a form of rebellion against the political system and the left-wing interpretation of the Gospel. There is, of course, still a long way to go and an election is only a beginning. But something has changed in Brazilian Catholicism that is having political consequences.