Governance of the Brazilian Church between Rome and Rio de Janeiro
The role of the Council of Trent in ecclesiastical administration (1840-1889)

Completed Project

By exploring the interactions between three different institutional dimensions – the Holy See, the Brazilian Empire, and the local clergy – this project analyzes how the disciplinary decrees of the Council of Trent were used in the governance of the Catholic Church in Brazil during the reign of Emperor Pedro II (1840-1889). Particular focus lies on cases concerning matters of ecclesiastical administration of ‘mixed nature’.

The term ‘mixed nature’ describes legal institutions that involve both spiritual and temporal aspects and therefore require actions both from the clergy and from secular authorities in order to work properly. The maintenance of a padroado system after Brazil’s independence (1822) meant that many issues concerning the very core of church organization remained of mixed nature, or indeed started being treated as such. In other words, government and clergy shared responsibilities for the administration of ecclesiastical persons, spaces and goods. While this had been common in Ancien Régime settings, in the case of nineteenth-century Brazil, a country aspiring to be liberal, and embedded in the political and legal narratives of a modern nation state, it resulted in a good deal of uncertainty – and sometimes even friction among groups in favor of a national church (regalists) and groups supporting the idea of an universal, autonomous church (ultramontanists).

One of the reasons for this unsettled atmosphere was the plurality of applicable norms. Despite the new state’s ambitions to build a tradition of national (and preferably codified) law, ecclesiastical administration remained regulated by several non-systematic and sometimes overlapping bodies of norms that had originated at different times and had been generated by different institutions. Moreover, there were a number of cases or situations in which the roles to be played by the various authorities, be they ecclesiastical or secular, from Brazil or from the Holy See, were either not clearly defined or subject to debate, and each agent’s scope of action shifted according to the perspective adopted.

As a consequence, in order to cope with this legal uncertainty the Brazilian clergy and even lay people would often present petitions to higher instances – both in Brazil and outside it – in charge of providing answers on the interpretation and uses of ecclesiastical law. Among these were the Brazilian Council of State and the congregations of the Holy See, in particular the Congregation of the Council and the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs. Even though these institutions belonged to very different contexts, they were all responsible for delivering opinions and decisions on a common set of issues of ecclesiastical administration. The combined activity of these institutions engendered multiple exchanges of petitions and responses. These were part of the process of the emergence of law and of the cultural translation of normativities through the interaction between different actors – both ecclesiastical and secular – at different institutional levels, in Brazil and beyond.

This project approaches these flows of legal communication by focusing on how the Council of Trent was translated into the context of Brazilian ecclesiastical administrative reality. Our hypothesis is that, even centuries after its promulgation, the Council of Trent played the role of a normative thread connecting all levels of Church governance. More precisely, the movement towards the use of Trent in Brazilian ecclesiastical reality is considered a central, even transformative practice, which integrated the fragmented actions of individuals into larger movements involving many institutional layers on the local, national and global scale. This does not mean that all sources are expected to display a homogenous position, nor that they necessarily endorsed the adoption of Tridentine decrees. They all, however, in some way – directly or indirectly – responded to the Council of Trent’s provisions.

The heterogeneity present in the sources from the Brazilian Council of State and from Roman congregations is addressed through the following questions: what problems lying within the Council of Trent’s disciplinary scope were submitted to institutions in Brazil and in Rome? How were Tridentine decrees employed in these institutions’ responses and opinions: were they regarded as enforceable? How did they coexist with other norms and other legal arguments? What were the relations between decisions provided by different institutions: conflict or cooperation, convergence or divergence? Did these decisions change over time, particularly after the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and the Brazilian Religious Question (1870s)?

With our analysis, we hope to achieve an understanding of Brazilian state and church relations that goes beyond national boundaries, and to offer insights on the developments in the many-layered field of law to the existing historiography, which until now has focused primarily on political discussions. This may generate new interpretations on how the relationship between ecclesiastic and secular agents unfolded, in particular regarding the well-known tension between ultramontanist and regalist groups. Finally, this is a study that, by including sources from different levels of legal praxis, may shed light on how fruitful it can be to combine the fields of ecclesiastical legal history and of the history of state law.

This project was completed with the defence of the PhD thesis: “The Fabric of the Ordinary: The Council of Trent and the Governance of the Catholic Church in the Empire of Brazil (1840-1889)”, on 8 July 2021.

By gazing across sources from the Congregation of the Council and the Brazilian Council of State, the following topics were detected as common to both organs: examination for benefices, elections of vicar capitular, obligation of residence, ecclesiastical migration, seminaries, and suspension ex informata conscientia. We called them ‘strong mixed matters’, given their verification in practice.

In the analysis of cases, the Council of Trent pervaded the activities of the three levels of governance of the Church. Its dispositions assumed numerous roles throughout the sources: they were used as weapon, as model for (ecclesiastical and secular) norms, as rhetorical support for decisions, as an emblem of tradition, as a flexible resource etc.

The tension between ultramontanists and jurisdictionalists formed part of the governance system – but it did so as a rather precarious element. In the administrative realm, it was a trigger that often led actors to control the effects of normative novelties, and to recall common objectives and concrete needs. This was the case even during periods of crisis, like the Religious Question.

In general, the petitions and decisions analysed provided a view of the system's creative pursuit of stability. They are small, yet colourful pieces of the fabric of the ordinary that dressed the everyday life of the Brazilian Church in the 19th century.

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