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A Sour Blessing: How the Catholic Institution Impacted Portugal’s Development

'God, Homeland, and Family' ('Deus, Pátria e Família') was the slogan that formed the foundation of Portugal’s dictatorship. However, it can well be used to illustrate the influence that religion still has in the country, where 80% of the population identifies as Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church has long shaped the Portuguese societal dynamics, from its formation and establishment of borders to its colonial empire.

However, the relationship with this institution has not always been particularly beneficial for Portugal. History books and political analysts do not hold themselves back when pointing out the role of the Church in the Portuguese underdevelopment and economic struggles, especially when compared to its protestant Nothern-European counterparts.

Recently, these allegations and references to historical patterns have resurfaced in light of the preparations for World Youth Day. This event aims to unite young international catholic believers and provide them with a week full of activities. Lisbon is set to host the event this year, so public authorities have already revealed that they expect to spend €80 million from public funds divided among the government, Lisbon, and Loures municipalities. These financial predictions have, however, caused a public outcry, even from the Catholic population. The main point highlighted is the carelessness of allocating such an immense quantity of public money, by a secular state, for a religious event while Portugal, as a whole, and specifically Lisbon, is currently facing one of the most severe housing crises experienced by its citizens. Portuguese people are expected to be able to afford rents that are more expensive than in cities like Madrid and Milan, while the minimum legal wage is €760, and 56% of the population needs to make ends meet while earning less than €1000 by the end of each month, which crowns Portugal as the country with the lowest average salary of Western Europe.

Hence, due to the recent controversies and backlash towards the Church, it becomes interesting to look back into Portuguese history to understand the impact that the Institution, not the religion per se, had on Portuguese society. Therefore, this article will guide you through two of the most relevant moments where this connection has not been particularly beneficial to the most Western European country.

Portuguese Inquisition

During the 14th century, Portuguese sailors positioned Portugal as the epicentre of new knowledge, making significant contributions to the development of modern science. The kingdom embraced a modern and open spirit with the growing popularity of Humanist ideas. Intellectuals of the time were largely independent of European cultural influences and generated numerous new ideas and scientific discoveries.

However, while Northern Europe, i.e., Protestant Europe, experienced a strengthening Renaissance spirit that fostered scientific advancements, the Portuguese mentality lost its vigour during the imposition of the Inquisition in the country. The Institution, desired by Manuel I, the king who expelled non-converting Jews from Portugal, was officially established during his son's reign. Its official goal was to combat Judaism, prevent the spread of Protestantism (which had minimal support in Portugal), and alleviate discrimination against the Jewish community by converting its members to Catholicism (you cannot hate what is not there). However, religion served as a mere cover for economic and social motives: The Jewish community played a crucial role in commerce and held significant power, engaging in various banking operations that posed an intense competition against the bourgeoisie class. Additionally, the Jewish community boasted higher levels of education, making them assume important liberal and political positions. Therefore, they were seen as a threat to the nobility, clerical and bourgeoisie classes at that time, which all fought for money and influence in the political and economic systems of the country.

Theoretically, the monarch controlled the 'Holy Office', but its inquisitors wielded authority surpassing civil, military, and religious powers. Consequently, as representatives of the Pope, they were the ones unofficially dictating the rules in the country. The inquisitorial apparatus intellectually stifled the nation, attacking any ideas that questioned the Church's practices or doctrines. It also impeded social progress by targeting the Jewish community, whose members either fled to countries like the Netherlands or faced persecution and execution. Unfortunately, they took with them all their knowledge, entrepreneurship and innovative spirit, so instead of contributing to Portugal's economic development, they aided the Northern economies where they found freedom and acceptance.

Thus, at a time when Portugal possessed all the necessary conditions to establish itself as a leader in modernity, it regressed from a Kingdom of Intelligence to a Kingdom of Stupidity, hindered under the pretext of religion.


"Estado Novo" (The New State) was the name given to the Portuguese dictatorial period, which was instituted in 1933 and lasted until 1974. The dictator António Oliveira Salazar accomplished to gather the support of the clerical hierarchy, Catholic believers, small to large landowners, the bourgeoisie, monarchists, fascist sympathisers, and many others, which was impressive at a time when Portuguese society was more fragmented than ever. This remarkable doing was largely due to his "financial miracle," in which he managed to mitigate the impact of the Great Depression and secure economic growth for the country for the first time in years. This miracle was accomplished through an intense period of austerity, which permitted Salazar to generate a positive saldo in the public funds and write off the state’s debt aggravated by the country’s premature participation in World War I. These attainments helped the country avoid the kind of debt crisis that plagued other nations during this time while aiding Salazar to gather increasing respect and power amongst the government, not taking long until he rose to the rank of President of the Council of Ministers.

However, despite having an enormous amount of gold in Portuguese banks, the dictatorship did not bring peace and happiness to Portuguese people, who saw their living conditions becoming progressively worse and their rights being stripped away from them one by one. Salazar’s ideology was extremely conservative and traditionalist, distinguishing ‘Estado Novo’ from other European totalitarian regimes of that time, which Salazar considered pagan. This aversion to modernity idealised rural living as the preferred way of life, while the industrial world was seen as perverse, immoral, and undisciplined. Furthermore, the Catholic Church was once again protected by making its teachings mandatory in schools and through a formal treaty that granted the Institution several privileges in the country. To preserve family morality, women were expected to be submissive and deprived of independence, with their sole role being to take care of the Catholic, rural, and austere family. Furthermore, artists were harshly repressed, and education was virtually limited to primary school, as even though higher education was available, the harsh living conditions obliged parents to send their kids to work during their childhood years, making them leave school prematurely.

In addition to all this, the economic model of the dictatorship strongly relied on small individual initiatives and dirigisme, with all cartels being controlled by the state, which further contributed to the country's underdevelopment. The entrepreneurs’ conservativism and resistance to innovation hindered Portuguese economic growth, leaving the country increasingly behind the rest of Europe. Salazar's fear of diluting Portuguese religious values also increased isolation and distance from Western societies. Under the slogan "Orgulhosamente sós" ("Proudly Alone"), the dictator avoided external intervention in the country, further contributing to social, cultural, economic, and scientific underdevelopment until the Carnation Revolution brought an end to the regime.

As the revolutionaries took control of the country on the 25th of April of 1974, 30% of the Portuguese population was illiterate, and child mortality rates were high. Additionally, the colonial war, which lasted 13 years (1961-1974) and was fought between Portugal's military and the emerging nationalist movements in the Portuguese African colonies, severely aggravated the Portuguese living conditions, with rationing affecting bigger cities, and those in rural areas unofficially forced to rely on subsistence agriculture. A significant portion of the population lived in isolated villages without proper sewage, water supply, road access, or electricity. Most houses outside the main cities or in the suburbs of Lisbon and Oporto were clandestine and made of rocks and wood. People had to use communal tanks or rivers to wash clothes, and horses and carriages remained popular transportation.

This description does not depict Medieval Portugal but rather the Portugal of the 20th century, governed by a Catholic-inspired dictatorship that prioritised preserving religious morality over opening the country to development, thereby subjecting its people to adverse conditions.


The Inquisition and the Dictatorship personify two historical periods when Portugal possessed the necessary funds and energy to establish itself as a European hub, but the Church’s hand on its politics hindered modernisation within the Portuguese borders.

Accordingly, while World Youth Day does not entail the same physical and ideological repression witnessed in the past, the allocation of public funds to a religious event when the country is going through such hard social and economic time easily reminds the Portuguese of their governments’ misguided decisions in the name of religion. Once again, it appears that the government and municipalities are prioritising religion over the interests of taxpayers.

No miracle seems close enough to resolve the mounting issues of rising inflation, the housing crisis, and deteriorating quality of life. As a result, more and more educated young people are opting to emigrate to other northern countries where their skills are valued, and they receive fair compensation, leaving everything behind to pursue a better life. They take with them their knowledge, their initiative and innovative ideas, as the Jewish people did during the Inquisition. This exodus highlights the urgency for real solutions addressing Portugal's challenges rather than promoting events to entertain the people.

History teachers state that their discipline is important to reflect on past mistakes and avoid similar actions. However, the relentless cycle of self-destruction in the name of religion became increasingly apparent, leaving the Portuguese people exhausted and disheartened. Maybe the civilians should update their political approach: they can either start believing in modern miracles or, better yet, only elect leaders who ace their history tests.

Printed Sources:

Rosas, M., Pinto do Couto, C., Costa, A., & Santos, A. C. (2022). Entre Tempos. Porto Editora.

Fortes, A., Gomes, F., & Fortes, J. (2019). Linhas da História. Areal.

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