Portugal Table of Contents

Portugal was profoundly Roman Catholic. According to common saying, "to be Portuguese is to be Catholic," and approximately 97 percent of the population considered itself Roman Catholic--the highest percentage in Western Europe. Only about one-third of the population attended mass and took the sacraments regularly, but nearly all Portuguese wished to be baptized and married in the church and to receive its last rites.

Portugal was Roman Catholic not only in a religious sense, but also socially and culturally. Although church and state were formally separated during the First Republic (1910-26), a separation reiterated in the constitution of 1976, the two still formed a seamless web in many areas of life. Catholic precepts historically undergirded the society, as well as the polity. The traditional notions of authority, hierarchy, and accepting one's station in life all stemmed from Roman Catholic teachings. Many Portuguese holidays and festivals had religious origins, and the country's moral and legal codes derived from Roman Catholic precepts. The educational and health care systems were long the church's preserve, and whenever a building, bridge, or highway was opened, it received the blessing of the clergy. Hence, although church and state were formally separated, absolute separation was not possible in practice.


Portugal was first Christianized while part of the Roman Empire. Christianity was solidified when the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe already Christianized, came into the Iberian Peninsula in the fifth century. Christianity was nearly extinguished in southern Portugal during Moorish rule, but in the north it provided the cultural and religious cement that helped hold Portugal together as a distinctive entity. 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 Roman Catholic Church predated the establishment of the Portuguese nation, a point that shaped relations between the two.

Under Afonso Henriques (r. 1139-85), the first king of Portugal and the founder of the Portuguese state, 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. The king found the church to be a useful ally as he drove the Moors toward the south and out of Portuguese territory. For its support of his policies, Afonso richly rewarded the church by granting it vast lands and privileges in the territories conquered from the Moors. 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 Roman Catholic Church were generally amiable and stable, their relative power fluctuated. In the thirteenth century and fourteenth century, 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.

In 1497, reflecting events that had occurred five years earlier in Spain, Portugal expelled the Jews and the remaining Moors--or forced them to convert. In 1536 the pope gave King João III (r.1521-57) permission to establish the Inquisition in Portugal 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 eighteenth century, antichurch sentiment became strong. The Marquês de Pombal (r.1750-77) expelled the Jesuits in 1759, broke relations with Rome, and brought education under the state's control. Pombal was eventually removed from his office, and many of his reforms were undone, but anticlericalism 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 nineteenth century, but a new wave of anticlericalism emerged with the establishment of the 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 Salazar Regime
Changes After the Revolution of 1974
Religious Practices
Non-Catholic Religious Groups

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress