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Brazilian media silent about signing of Vatican concordat

In the face of the curious silence of the media, the Brazilian journalist Alberto Dines hosted this TV debate on 25 November 2008 about the concordat secretly signed two weeks earlier. “There were hugs, there were blessings, there were pictures, but no statement on what was dealt with between the President and the Pontiff. In the days that followed the news was trivial, contradictory and clearly deceptive.” *

 This is a translation of a summary prepared by journalist Lilia Diniz for the TV station's website. 

Summary of the TV Brazil programme
“The agreement between the Government and the Vatican” 

Lilia Diniz, Observatório da Imprensa, TV Brasil, 26 November 2008

 The Press Review of the show on Tuesday (25/11) on TV Brasil and TV Cultura discussed the coverage by the media of the agreement signed on November 13 between the Brazilian Government and the Holy See during the recent visit by the President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the Vatican. The media gave little space to the agreement, which may harm the principle of the secular state.

The treaty, which gives legal form to the relations between the Brazilian Government and the Catholic Church, has controversial articles. The agreement provides, for example, for religious education in public schools, with attendance optional, and the possibility of annulment of civil marriage in cases where the religious marriage is annulled.

Participating in the debate live, in the studio in Rio de Janeiro, were the Reverend Guilhermino Silva da Cunha, pastor of the Presbyterian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro and Roseli Fischmann, researcher and professor of the University of São Paulo; and in Brasilia, Hugo Cysneiros Sarubbi, representative of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB).

In the editorial that introduced the program, the journalist Alberto Dines rated the performance of the media as “news embargo or self-censorship”. The agreement was kept confidential because it violates the letter and spirit of the Federal Constitution. Not only have the newspapers not paid attention to the signing of the agreement, the evangelical electronic media have also not protested. According to Dines, evangelical groups have been privileged by the Government in other ways. “It means that instead of following the Constitution and establishing complete separation between religion and the state, Brazil has invented an original way of managing the religious conflict, by offering benefits to the more powerful religions.”

“And what are the secularists and agnostics to do who believe that a democratic state must be secular? And shouldn’t the other Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé be privileged to get a piece of the cake? On the contrary”, said the journalist, “we in the developed world and our press have forgotten the three centuries of absolute censorship before being allowed to do our job, have had a fit of romantic nostalgia [Saudosismo] and once more experience the delights of self-censorship”.

In a report that was aired live before the debate, special reporter of the Folha de S. Paulo, Elvira Lobato, who has studied the issues surrounding the granting of broadcasting concessions in Brazil, explained that the Brazilian Telecommunications Code dates from the 1960s. Its standards do not allow religious denominations hold concessions for radio and TV channels, but in practice most of the churches are able to circumvent the law. Some do not have concessions, but rent the space from private broadcasters which “in terms of marketing is the same” because it takes the message to the faithful. But the phenomenon of electronic altar, which is steadily growing, has become an important source of income for private broadcasters.

Catholic Church a taboo for the press

In the live debate, Roseli Fischmann said that the press has shown difficulty in dealing with the agreement. The professor recalled that in May 2005 during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, even though the Folha de S. Paulo took a critical position in relation to the subject, publishing strong editorials in support of the secular state and against the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, the newspaper allowed the Catholic Church to comment on each new controversy, as well as the defenders of the secular state, who have encouraged the debate in the newspaper and in society. Roseli commented that although few news outlets aired these issues, the press still brought major victories in terms of the citizens mobilising society during the discussion of introducing a national holiday due to the canonisation of Frei Galvão, which was rejected by the House of Representatives after it was approved in the Senate, precisely because of the public debate; and a project related to religious education in São Paulo schools, vetoed [due to public outcry] by Governor Jose Serra, after it had been passed by the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo.

Dines asked the representative of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops to clarify its position on the Brazilian Constitution and secularism. Hugo Cysneiros Sarubbi said that the Constitution invokes God in the preamble, but it is secular. The State is neither atheist nor does it profess a particular religion. The lawyer stressed that the draft agreement between the Holy See, as a legal person of public international law, and the Brazilian State did not favour the Catholic Church, but supported the legal status of this religion.

[The Bishops’ representative said that] the Brazilian state sees in positive secularism (laicismo positivo) “a path” and recognises religion and belief as “something that is part of being human” and which may be exercised by the people as a Right. Dines considered that the mention of God in the preamble of the Constitution did not go as far as a profession of religious faith; it was only a personal intervention of then President José Sarney. It was not intended to compromise the secular character that provided the separation between the state and religious beliefs.

Is the concordat constitutional?

Reverend Guilhermino da Cunha Silva believes separation of church and state is “absolutely healthy” and preserves religious freedom. According to the pastor, this separation was recommended by Jesus Christ in the Bible, saying, for example, “My kingdom is not of this world” among other passages. The pastor said that the two states that conclude the agreement as involving only [freedom of] religious expression frontally attack the Constitution, specifically its Article 19 because it prohibits alliances between government and religious sects or churches. “The conclusion of the agreement does even more damage to our laws. It’s not just a blow against the [freedom of] religious expression, but also violates the Constitution,” he said. The pastor is hopeful that Congress will not support the agreement.

And Professor Roseli said, “Even if there were only a single citizen of another religion or an atheist he would have every right to exercise his choice.” The secular state has the duty to preserve the right of all, regardless of the number of people who choose certain belief. The professor said that Brazil has a rich religious pluralism and, therefore, an international agreement with a single religion is unacceptable. In this case, the others are ignored. “The state needs to represent everyone so that they feel respected,” he said.

Dines said that the Vatican wanted to “cover up” the agreement from “the oxygen of a democratic society”.

The representative of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops did not agree that society has been deceived and that the Church is manipulative. “The secrecy was not the flag, not the middle or the end of the treaty.” The lawyer believes that talk of a secret international treaty in a country with the characteristics of Brazil is a paradox because the society can examine the content of the agreement when it is submitted to the Legislative Power. [Ed. note: Then why did the Church try to block Congressional hearings?] Cysneiros stressed that the Constitution speaks of God in other articles, not only in the preamble. [Editor's note: No one else can find these references in that document. And nothing can be argued from the reference in the preamble, because on 8 August 2003, the Brazilian Supreme Court issued a ruling (#2076) that the preamble has no judicial validity.]

The silence of the media as a symptom [of something else that is going on]

The CNBB's lawyer said the treaty was not signed with the Catholic Church but with the Holy See which is a sovereign state. If, for historical reasons, other religions have no [legal] personality in Private International Law, they cannot conclude international treaties. According to Cysneiros, there is no privilege for the Catholic Church to the detriment of other religions and the agreement is not unconstitutional. The treaty is clear and gives status to the Catholic Church in Brazil based on two principles: respect for constitutional order and the Brazilian state and equality between all entities of the same nature.

Dines argued that the Holy See is a sovereign state, but it is theocratic and works with and theocratic rules.

In the opinion of the Reverend Guilhermino Silva da Cunha, pastor of the Presbyterian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, the silence of the media is collusion. “Where there is silence it means that there is some understanding or something different and strange,” he said.

A viewer asked Roseli Fischmann about religious education in schools. The professor explained that the role of institutions is often confused, especially in times of violence, when people think that the teaching of religion can combat crime. [However] the issue of religion is tied to the conscience of each individual. The school should always prepare children to respect individuals as free and equal citizens without recourse to any supernatural figure.

The issue of concessions for radio and TV

To the Reverend Guilhermino Silva da Cunha, the presence of other churches in the media is no different from the presence of the Catholic Church. The pastor is not against the entry of the churches in the television media, but resents the excess. As the viewer has the power to change the channel, the large number of religious programs is not enough to be “an invasion”. The minister stressed that all churches pay high prices for both rental time on private channels and to maintain a concession. The pastor considers that a television channel that gains strength to become a country-wide network creates a counterpoint to the monopoly of communication, which is “a disaster”.

Dines asked the opinion of Roseli Fischmann on “the management of privileges” in Brazil. The professor emphasized secularism as the foundation of democracy in the country: “There is no democracy if people are not all equal.” Religious minorities are one of the visible faces of pluralism, which is essential to democracy. The State cannot be silent or absent for minorities, it cannot “retreat and leave the public area”. If a group is privileged, minorities tend to pull back. 

Profiles of the guests

Hugo Sarubbi Cysneiros is a lawyer for the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). He is a professor of disciplines Systems of Comparative Law and Public International Law of UniCEUB / DF. [Centro Universitário de Brasília]

Roseli Fischmann is a researcher and professor, coordinates the area of Philosophy of Education and Graduate Studies in Education at USP [University of São Paulo] and Research Group on Discrimination, Prejudice and Stigma at the University. Member of the Special Committee on Religious Education of the State of São Paulo.

Rev. Guilhermino Silva da Cunha is pastor of the Presbyterian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro. Doctor of Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary (USA) and Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie [Portuguese for "Mackenzie Presbyterian University", a private university in São Paulo, Brazil]. He was President of the Supreme Council of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil.  

 * Alberto Dines, “Acordo desvendado, três meses depois” (“Agreement unveiled three months later”), Observatorio da Impressa, 17 February 2009.

For updates on the Brazilian concordats, see the blog in Portuguese by Daniel Sottomaior, a leading opponent of them: He points out, for instance , in his entry for 10 October 2010 that the Brazilian press did not publish what the international press revealed about government threats to cancel the concordat if the Church didn't stop attacking Dilma on the subject of abortion.  “The Italian news agency ANSA reported that the president's secretary, Gilberto Carvalho, met with members of the National Bishops' Conference of Brazil and told them that the government may carry out a review of the accords that establish aid for Catholic schools and other programs.”


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