The Appointment of Bishops in Early-Modern Portugal (1495-1777)

By Paiva, José Pedro | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Appointment of Bishops in Early-Modern Portugal (1495-1777)


Paiva, José Pedro, The Catholic Historical Review


The author explains the theoretical model that was used in early-modern Portugal for appointing bishops, based on original research of 505 episcopal appointments. The author argues that the model enabled monarchs to better control the prelates and consequently the Portuguese Church, which reinforced the power of the state over the spiritual sphere in the realm.

Keywords: episcopal appointments; patronage; patron-client relations; Portuguese Church

1. The System: Bishops as Dependents of Kings and the Creation of the State

In a treatise written after Portugal's Restoration (around 1668) but published in 1715, which endeavored to legitimize the positions taken by the kings of the new Bragança dynasty (John IY and Afonso VI) regarding the appointment of bishops throughout the Portuguese empire, Manuel Rodrigues Leitäo notes that " [bishops] had incredible power over the spirit of the people through piety and religion, and this spiritual empire was very powerful at the secular level."1 This quote clearly shows the awareness of the Portuguese monarchy, at least from the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521) onward, that choosing bishops was crucial to the monarchy's power base. Portugal's kings understood the important role played by the Church, particularly by its bishops, as a strategic tool for maintaining order and royal authority over their kingdom.

This awareness was based on three main principles. The first was that the bishops, as Rodrigues Leitäo noted, influenced the behavior of the people through piety and religion - that is to say, the power they held in the realm of the sacred. Less formally, of course, what this meant was the idea of a central cultural system, as defined by Edward Shils.2 According to this concept, a central system of beliefs created or maintained by a dominant institution (in this case, the Church) helps the political center (in this case, the Crown) to reaffirm its authority and exercise power over the territory it governs. Second, through the presence of parishes throughout Portuguese territory, the Church became a fundamental tool for communication in the modern era. Typically, during the Old Regime, episcopal control within their territorial divisions was much more effective than that of the king. Thus, in the context of strengthening a state that was consolidating its borders, this well-established structure became an essential vehicle for communicating news and sending orders from the political center to peripheral regions.3 Third, the Church promoted a cultural and religious system that, both on the level of doctrine and of communication and ritual practices, was marked by clear ideas of hierarchy, order, and obethence, which encouraged discipline among the people. In 1619, when the kingdom of Portugal was under Castilian rule, the Benedictine Juan de Salazar observed:

It is clear that it is the learned and ecclesiastical men, particularly priests and preachers, who keep their heads down, docile and obethent to their superiors. . . . They regularly preach to the people that obethence to the king is the will of God.4

In summary, to use Paolo Prodi's expression, the tools that the Church had to promote the "discipline of the soul, the discipline of body and the discipline of the society" were decisive in strengthening central political authority5

It also should be noticed that this tendency of the monarchy to take advantage of the Church's power and its bishops was not confined within the borders of the kingdom but also extended to Portugal's imperial territories. As Charles Boxer has shown, the alliance between the Crown and the altar was fundamental in the structuring and consolidation of Iberian empires.6

The Crown's awareness of the power of the Church and the bishops was reflected in its substantial efforts to control the appointment of prelates, similar to the actions of the French and Castilian monarchs at this time.7 From 1503 onward, during the reign of Manuel I and after the polemical appointment (decided in Rome by Pope Alexander VI) of Cardinal D. …

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