top of page
  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

“Catholic Fringe” Growing in Portugal

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Lisbon municipality honors Santo Antonio, its patron saint known as a matchmaker, by hosting a mass wedding on June 12. Recently, 11 couples chose a church ceremony and five a civil one.


Shortly after moving to Portugal one August, I attended Mass in the village chapel, squeezing myself into standing space at the back of the full church. Inside, a few churchgoers held their phones high over their heads as they recorded the Catholic ritual. Outside, a crowd listened through a loudspeaker.

Well, I thought. I had better arrive early for Mass. A few weeks later, I did just that, making sure to leave room in my pew for fellow worshippers. However, there was no need.

There were a dozen of us. A normal turnout. My first Mass occurred on the weekend of the festa. The village heaved with emigrants from Luxembourg, Switzerland and other northern European countries. No matter where they are, Portugal lives in the heart of the émigré. Catholic traditions are a part of the memory of home.

“In Portuguese society, there has been a ‘de-Catholicization’ since the 1960s,” Alfredo Teixeira told Jornal de Negocios (May 31, 2019). Teixeira is a professor on the Faculty of Theology at the Universidade Catolica Portuguesa (UCP).

Fewer Portuguese are identifying themselves as Catholic. The relationship of the Portuguese with religion is changing. And there are more and more people without a religion as well as believers from other religious communities, Teixeira told the Expresso (August 27):

“This decrease of Catholics is not properly explained as a renunciation of and split with the Catholic Church nor as an outlet for other churches.”

This break, in Teixeira’s opinion, is due to the “detraditionalization” of society. Religion started to be experienced “essentially as an inheritance, a memory that was received from family and perpetuated.

“Insofar as our societies are strongly individualized, this dynamic weakens, (and with it) the Catholic belonging itself also weakens. Looking inside Catholicism, we could see what might be in crisis within it, but it has a major global transformation and affects the way people identify themselves from a religious point of view. And this has an impact, above all, on religious majorities, that is, on religious groups that live religion more as a memory and less as a practice.

“We are experiencing a social adjustment,” said Teixeira, who is an anthropologist.

When asked to indicate their religion on a 2011 survey, 88 percent of Portuguese residents responded that they were Catholic. This percentage had stayed the same since 1991 when the question was integrated into the national Census. A study of the UCP, also in 2011, estimated that 79.5 percent of the population was Catholic. In 2014, the Episcopalian Conference estimated 77.5 percent.

“As for the 2021 Census, a continuation of the decline in Catholic hegemony is expected because what is characteristic of the plural societies, in which we live, is not one thing in any of its dimensions,” said Teixeira, coordinator of the UCP study.

“It isn’t normal that in today’s society, you have 90 percent of your population identified with a certain thing. What is normal is that societies are diverse. What we are living in is a social adjustment in which we are leaving a world in which religion tended to be a relatively monolithic universe.”

During the past 10 years, the number of religions with which the population identifies has increased from 50 in 2011 to 92 today, according to the Religious Freedom Commission. This stems from new legislation. Twenty years ago, the Religious Freedom Law was enacted in which the State “seeks to verify that a particular religious group, regardless of its creed and practices, has an organized social existence that allows it access . . . as a recognized group to some rights that the law provides”.

“It was fundamental not only for Portuguese society, in general, to provide the State with the instruments of regulation in the religious field, but also for communities themselves to feel respected and legitimate in the exercise of their activity,” said the UCP professor.

“Through this law, one’s own religious identity was clearly recognized as part of one’s citizenship, and that is a very important achievement.”

Even so, he does not consider that “the growth and affirmation of these minorities is a social dynamic with a strong demographic impact”, Teixeira said in the Expresso. He attributed the growth to migration.

“It is normally the new residents of a territory who bring new religious identities. It is no coincidence that the two regions in the country, where we have greater affirmation of minority religious identities are the Metropolitan Area of Lisbon and the Algarve, precisely the two territories where we have more presence of new residents from other countries.”

Nationwide, the largest and fastest-growing group is of people who declare themselves “without religion”, but they are not necessarily non-believers.

In a UCP study, 32.5 percent of respondents declared themselves non-religious believers.

“My studies show that such non-religious believers are a kind of Catholic fringe. That is, they are people who clearly still have beliefs that are identifiable with the Catholic universe, yet do not feel they belong to the Catholic Church.

“This translates into one of the most striking phenomena of contemporary religiosity – a strong individualization of the religious.

“Today, in order to know religion, it is not enough for us to know religious institutions . . . because there are dimensions that subsist on a clearly individualized plane.”

These trends are similar to what already has taken place outside of Portugal.

“We have lived in a religious tradition until quite late compared with other European countries.”

“The phenomenon of the pluralization of the religious, that is, of the diversification of religions, has followed a slower trajectory than in other countries, particularly in Europe. For this reason, we continue to appear at the top of international surveys for religious affiliation. In a study on Western European countries by the Pew Research Center released in 2018, for example, Portugal comes in second in the number of practicing Catholics (35%) and last (15%), along with Italy and Ireland, in the category ‘without religion’.

“We also surveyed as second for Christian (74%), and first as those who believe in God as described in the Bible (7%) or in ‘Another higher power or spiritual force in the universe (40%). We also occupy first place in the population that declares themselves simultaneously religious and spiritual (55%).

“But when we take the same questions and stratify the answers by generations, what we see is a very sharp curve. In other words, these results that we have when we read Portuguese society globally depend, essentially, on the older generations.

“As we get closer to the more recent generations, especially those born after the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the decrease is very accentuated. We can always assume that people, throughout their lives, also have changes in their religious position, but it is still clear that as there is this generational difference, this picture will change and may change with some acceleration.”

In the meantime, Sunday Masses are broadcast, often in cafes, on the radio and television. Babies are baptized at church fonts, and many weddings are performed by priests.

Processions of the “Virgin Mary” are traditional. One has been enshrined in the song, Ha Festana Mouraria (There’s a Festival in Mouraria) (1965). Fadistas, including Amalia, the Queen of Fado, whose 60-year career ended with her death in 1999, and Mariza, whom I heard three years later in a Santa Cruz, California, supper club, sang it:

There’s a festival in the town

It’s the day of the procession

For the Lady of Good Health,

Even Rosa Maria

From the street of ill repute

Seems to be virtuous

Splendid quilts in every window

Rose petals all on the ground

The faithful and unbelievers mingle

In the narrow streets,

It’s the day of the procession

For the Lady of Good Health

After brief murmurings

Deep silence reigns

As all along the way

The Virgin is carried.

All kneel and pray in reverence

Even Rosa Maria

As if turned to stone

In fervent devoted prayer,

Such is her presence

That even Rosa who was deflowered

From the street of ill repute

Seems to be virtuous.

I remembered the song after my first procession. The continuity of the lyrics comforted me:

The procession seemed to flow from the Mass; I don’t recall Father giving the customary blessing at the end of the service. One . . . five . . . eight statues left the chapel on platforms carried by male and female parishioners. They brought them directly outside the church, where there was a gaggle of people, including junta officials and an orchestra, who had played during the Mass.

Finally, the procession order was organized, and the march began, led by the priest, around the church and through the village. I stood back and watched everyone leave the start. When a teenaged boy and girl debated about joining the procession, I decided that I would do so. I brought up the rear.

We stopped at every street. Quilts were draped over balcony balustrades. Red rose and purple flower petals were scattered on the ground. At the third stop, I arrived soon enough to see villagers throw the petals on us.

We also passed houses with no one on the balconies; they were empty houses. Yet, somehow, the spirits of the homes were very much alive. I walked in a traditional procession that included everyone who lived in the village or had ever lived there.

579 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page