The Boys from Brazil

No, I am not alluding to the film in which Gregory Peck plays the sadistic Nazi doctor Josef Mengele who “made” nearly a hundred clones of Hitler. I am describing a book about a dissident Catholic church founded at the end of World War II in Brazil by Bishop Carlos Duarte-Costa.

I am presently reading a book by the Roman Catholic historian Edward Jarvis, God, Land & Freedom: The True Story of I.C.A.B.: The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church: Its History, Theology, Branches, and Worldwide Offshoots, published this year. I am well through it because I was still reading at 2 am in the night. It is the story of a movement rather than a Church, owing to the fissiparous nature of Duarte Costa’s schism from the Roman Catholic Church and its tendency to go the sweet ways of each bishop and micro-church.

I took the photo above in Portugal at a meeting in October 2004 hosted by Archbishop Antonio José da Costa Raposo to work out a project of a Council of National Catholic Churches. The prelate in white was not the Pope but Bishop Luis Castillo Mendez who was until his death in 2009 at the head of the Igreja Católica Apostólica Brasileira. I went there as a bishop representing two priests and myself with a small number of faithful in France. As things turned out, I had never seen such an unruly mob of bishops, and the row became quite nasty. With my more than limited knowledge of the Portuguese language (I could understand something on account of my Italian and French), there was a bid by Bishop Raposo to take over a union of ICAB-origin national Catholic churches including the Brazilians. There was a row, and nothing was achieved other than a small union of churches in Portugal, Eastern Europe and Canada under +Raposo. We were there for several days, and one feature was a trip to Fatima, and I was able to talk with some of the bishops in a commonly understood language. Some were apparently devout as they prayed at the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. I met Bishop Josivaldo Pereira de Oliveira whose name reminded me of my moral theology professor at Fribourg (Carlos-Josaphat Pinto de Oliveira). He seemed honest and kind, and spoke French. Bishop Castillo Mendez was most certainly on his last legs (he still had five years to go), almost blind, and was still consecrating bishops to the last! I left Lisbon and flew back to Paris as I came, confused and disappointed. I was not interested in the little Raposo group, and my confidence in the Brazilians as a whole collapsed. That was enough for me! I returned home to my little house in the Vendée.

This photo was taken at the basilica of Fatima, where I found myself holding a dove and standing next to one of the ICAB bishops.

This brief encounter with this odd group of prelates in grey cassocks with red piping remained in my mind even after I joined the TAC the following year as a simple priest, having relinquished my episcopate, or at least any exercise of it. It was with this experience in mind that I was quite excited about the possibility of reading this book when I found it mentioned in a posting on Facebook. To begin with, it seemed to be the work of a triumphalist Roman Catholic in a similar spirit to Peter Anson, but as I finished reading the historical part, I began to read the theological and pastoral aspects. Jarvis shows a high degree of intellectual honesty and understanding unlike Anson and Brandreth (Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church, SPCK 1947).

He describes the tumultuous history of Brazil in the early twentieth century and the political struggles going back to the Portuguese colonisation of what became Brazil. Jarvis cites his sources, and his work is rigorous. He is not flattering about Castillo Mendez who was an adventurer, a liar, document forger and many of the shenanigans I have found in other “wooden leg” prelates. I was quite crestfallen, having met that very old man who had been at the head of ICAB for so long. It is all unflatteringly described, with all its warts, but yet the book is not condemnatory. The discussion is open.

The following photo shows Bishop Castillo Mendez with his successor Bishop Josivaldo Pereira de Oliveira on his left, looking intently at something on the lap on his neighbour. The grey cassocks and red trimmings came in because the ICAB were required by the Brazilian authorities to distinguish themselves from Roman Catholics.

Some of the “wooden legs” I have mentioned figure in the book, in particular Atkinson-Wake (aka David Bell) who told an Italian Roman Catholic bishop that he “wore the mitre of Satan”. Traits of a disordered personality like grandiose self-esteem and self-entitlement seem to be detectable in the stories of Duarte Costa himself, Castillo Mendez and some of the hangers-on. What a mess. Castillo Mendez consecrated hundreds of bishops, quite willy-nilly, and left them to their own devices to do their “own thing”. The author of this book seems not to be informed about the state of the ICAB after 2009 (death of Castillo Mendez).

Jarvis shows openness of mind when discussing the decline of institutional Catholicism and the possibility that the future of Christianity is in small “micro-churches”, the traditionalist movement and conservative Anglicans. He is prepared to re-think the Church and relativise the traditional requirements of being in a canonical relationship with the Pope and the diocesan bishops. He discusses many perspectives and does not come over as biased towards traditionalism or liberalism. The view point is clearly Roman Catholic but with enough openness of mind to avoid writing an apologia for his (“true”) Church.

I will carry on reading until I finish the book, but I can say I am impressed by this study. It is a valuable addition to the collection of books we have on marginal ecclesiastical phenomena and independent bishops. Most of us stay away and keep a cautious attitude, but there are lessons to be learned.

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6 Responses to The Boys from Brazil

  1. AndrewWS says:

    Was your moral theology professor at Fribourg (Carlos-Josaphat Pinto de Oliveira) related to the founder of TFP?

    • I very much doubt it, but it’s not impossible. Permutations of “Pinto de Oliveira” and “Pereira de Oliveira”, etc. are very common in Brazil, possibly also in Portugal. It seems a little like my own surname in the north of England.

  2. Acolytus says:

    I didn’t know you were a bishop. Who consecrated you? It’s a shame that +Terence Fulham didn’t live to see this book.

  3. Acolytus says:

    Speaking of +Fulham!

    I hope you will do a post on him, as you have re: Hesse and others.

    • I doubt that I will, because I would not be flattering. He was a very difficult personality and that was why his project of a seminary, community of priests and even someone of his choice to succeed him all came to nothing. He could write a pleasant e-mail and something very nasty a few days later without any provocation. I believe he was highly unstable emotionally.

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