Standing with the Church

History bores many people, but this history has a point very worth considering. Few people realize it, but Brazil once was a constitutional monarchy. Not that long ago, the country voted on whether or not to restore the monarchy. It failed, of course. 

Brazil, as far as Caucasians are concerned, as far as its history for the last half-millennium is concerned, began as a colony of Portugal. Just after Napoleon’s defeat, the Portuguese king, Joao VI (1767-1826), sent his son Pedro (1798-1834) to Brazil to govern the colony as viceroy. The king, rarely remembered either for his wisdom or his statecraft, was keen enough to hear the distant drumbeats of rebellion. Colonists wanted independence, and Dom Joao knew it. He privately told his son that when the revolution came, the prince should not try to suppress it but lead it. Thus, in 1820, when the pot boiled over, the viceroy — actually in mutiny against his father — proclaimed Brazil a sovereign, independent nation with himself as “Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil.” (A massive monument in Sao Paulo marks the spot where the new monarch made his declaration and where, coincidentally, he is buried.) The constitutional monarchy was born. 

In time, Pedro I’s only surviving son came to the throne as Pedro II (1825-1891). He reigned until the monarchy was overthrown. He still is known as a Renaissance man of the first order, a scholar, a relentless mover for the advancement of Brazil and betterment of its society. 

Pedro II married an Italian princess, Teresa (1822-1889), and in due course they were the parents of four children. Their two sons died in childhood, leaving the elder daughter, Isabel, heiress presumptive to the throne. 

Isabel (1846-1921), given the honorific of “Princeza Imperiale (Princess Imperial),” was fortunate. From her father, she inherited a deep sense of humanity and culture. From the Empress Teresa, she received a deep Catholic faith. 

A legacy left from the Portuguese days was slavery. Pedro disliked it, but he tolerated it. He was a good politician. He thought the time for abolition would come, but he would do nothing to hurry it. 

Isabel, by contrast, simply could not abide the traffic in human flesh and utter denial of human dignity that was slavery. For her, it was an anachronism of the worst sort, a terrifying abuse of human rights, and from the moral perspective, a national sin confirmed as such by the Catholic Church that the princess loved. 

As the years passed, enthralled by anthropology, philosophy and history, Pedro yearned to see the sights of Europe and the Middle East about which he had read so much with such fascination. Finally, he and his wife left on an extended trip. It was a thrilling experience, seeing the sites where such momentous things had happened. 

Under the constitution, the Princess Imperial became regent or acting head of state during her father’s absence. Unlike her father, scrupulously impartial when it came to politics, she let it be known that she detested slavery and would support any political move that would rid Brazil of that awful stain. 

The emperor and empress returned, but then they left again. Isabel came back as regent, along with her strong views about slavery. Her parents returned home once more, but then they sailed away on a very extended foreign trip that included the United States. As before, Isabel reigned in her father’s stead. 

When the Brazilian parliamentary assembly finally considered a bill abolishing slavery, Isabel left no doubts of where she stood. When, but without unanimous consent, the bill passed, the Princess–Regent at once signed the act into law, saying that she could not abide slavery one more hour. 

Eliminating slavery then was the law of the land, but it was not with universal popular acclaim. Opponents of abolition gathered, and they came together in hatred of Isabel. Realizing that Pedro II was old, and that soon his daughter would be empress, the dissenters formed plots against the monarchy. 

Isabel was humanitarian enough, and philosophical enough, to abhor slavery, and, so too, the Church was against it, and first, last and always, she was devoutly Catholic. On religious grounds she shaped and stubbornly kept her position on the subject. 

To recognize the regent’s soundly Catholic thinking, Pope Leo XIII, who expressly condemned slavery, conferred on Princess Imperial Isabel the Golden Rose, the Vatican’s highest decoration for a Catholic laywoman noted for her piety and conformity with Catholic doctrine. 

She had hardly received the honor when the end came for the monarchy. A military coup overthrew Pedro II, and he, his wife and daughter, and his daughter’s husband and children were banished. Pedro and Teresa died. Isabel and her family moved to France, her husband’s homeland. Being driven from Brazil was heartbreaking, and it was because of a glorification of a view that Isabel saw as definitely opposite Catholic belief and, therefore, her belief. 

Never allowed to return to her homeland, she lived in France until her death in 1921, her time spent in attending Mass daily, in Catholic missionary activities, and in being with her family. As her health failed, a relative visited her and asked if taking the high moral ground in the slavery matter had been worth the price of rejection, exile and humiliation. Isabel firmly replied that it was worth the price she had paid and anything more. 

Time cools tempers. Brazilians now revere the princess, calling her “A Redentora (The Redemptorix),” because of her role in freeing the slaves. The table on which she signed abolition into law is a shrine in the national historical museum, and the pen she used to sign the bill is a treasured relic. 

Isabel was not alone in paying a heavy price for championing Catholic principles in politics. St. Thomas More paid a high price for resisting King Henry VIII’s effort to wrest English Christianity away from its traditional home in Rome. 

Struggling amid politics and religious principles is nothing new. It appears today literally across the world as political leaders, great and small, work through controversies political in nature but with strong religious and moral overtones. At times war and economic measures are the issues. At other times, and more dramatically so, the questions are about abortion, increasingly about homosexuality, and maybe, God forbid, the concerns will deal with euthanasia and medical/scientific processes. 

How refreshing it would be if all these politicians — from prominent European heads and chiefs of state to members of the United States Congress — would stand tall and proudly on the principles of the Catholicism they profess as they confront political and social problems. Many do stand with the Church, and God bless them for it. Many, obviously, do not stand with the Church. Rarely do any outright repudiate the Church. Generally, the explanation is that while they themselves personally believe all that the Church teaches, they cannot impose their personal religious convictions on others in today’s pluralistic, democratic societies. 

These explanations have an air of illogic about them. Political leaders all function to impose some value system, and presumably a set of values in which they believe, upon wider societies for the common good or the protection or good of an individual. Outlawing murder, and larceny, and child abuse all rest upon values that trace themselves to religion, although admittedly they also stand upon assumptions of what is needed to maintain good order in society or enhance human rights. 

Exempting values, and precisely religious values, from the process of law-making and of law enforcement simply does not connect either with historical experience or common sense. Without being too accusatory, does it go back to the price required for holding fast to the values? Are not politicians, especially those identifying themselves as Catholics, not asked at least to consider the price that they would have to pay for upholding the religious values in which they profess belief as they go through the duties of their offices? 

Bluntly, is the price of defeat at the polls or the loss of influence, too great to pay? This raises a context of self-interest, but is it not calling a spade a spade? TP 

Msgr. Campion is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.