April 25, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of an event little known this side of the Atlantic: on that day in 1974, before dawn, the Portuguese Army marched on Lisbon and overthrew Portugal’s forty year old Estado Novo (New State) regime in a bloodless coup. Immediately, the coup was named the Revolução dos Cravos or the Carnation Revolution, for the red flower that was in bloom that spring gifted by the people of Lisbon to the soldiers on the streets. What began as a military coup launched by junior army officers on the political left quickly expanded to become a popular revolt that ended a fascist corporatist dictatorship and initiated a process, which was not without its own hazards, that ultimately brought democracy to Portugal. It also heralded the end of Portugal’s 500 year old empire, the oldest European hegemony, when the new government initiated negotiations which brought independence to Angola, Mozambique, the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Portuguese Guinea, in a matter of months. That same government abandoned East Timor. It, too, ended the colonial wars Portugal had been waging against independence forces in most of those territories since 1961.
The Carnation Revolution’s significance for political theology is that it serves as a discrete, signal example of why Catholics in Portugal, including the highest levels of the episcopate in that country, came down on opposite sides of a movement to democratize a country. Catholics supported the overthrow of the Estado Novo and the dissolution of the Portuguese Empire, which meant having a limited alliance with leftists whose groups were historic enemies of the Church. Catholics also defended the Estado Novo, and the Portuguese Empire that government fought colonial wars for over a decade to maintain. The Carnation Revolution was a crisis period for the Church in Portugal that stands as a microcosm of the struggle of the Catholic Church in Europe throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to sort out authentic democracy from its anti-clerical, ultimately authoritarian, Jacobin extremes.
From 1932 to 1968, Portugal was ruled by its Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar. He was a former seminarian who did not make it past minor vows, chose economics as his field of study, and prior to entering politics served as a professor at the University of Coimbra. Salazar was an intensely devout Catholic, who upheld Catholic principles in his personal life. He never married, and by many accounts lived a chaste, simple, austere life akin to a vowed monastic. He was personally incorruptible, having never profited from being prime minister (Even coup leaders of the Carnation Revolution attested to his personal integrity).
The centerpiece of Salazar’s rule was the Estado Novo, which history books often caricature as being a fascist state. In fact, the Estado Novo was an authoritarian corporatist state that incorporated fascist elements. According to Salazar’s own thinking, his model of a corporatist state was an authentic exercise in Roman Catholic social teaching. He believed that Portugal, emerging from the chaotic years following the Republican Revolution of 1910 which deposed the monarchy and persecuted the Church, needed a highly organized state consisting of different organizations handling the respective interests of the different professions and landowners, and syndicates representing labor in agriculture and industry. However, the corporatism articulated by Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno envisioned that these groups would develop organically as needed, and would cooperate with each other and the government for the common good of all. The government itself is limited to being an honest broker, granting legal recognition to these groups, and would serve as a medium through which these groups negotiate how to order their lives together. Government power would be limited by the practice of subsidiarity, and its duty to maintain the common good of all. On the other hand, Salazar’s corporatism was an exclusive creation of a centralized, authoritarian state. The Estado Novo was a projection of Salazar’s own personality: the state as a paternalistic, strict master.
The internal order in Portugal under Salazar’s rule during the most violent years of the twentieth century, his economic expertise enabling Portugal to weather the Great Depression, and his political skill in keeping Portugal formally out of the Second World War (though in practice Salazar played off the Allies and the Axis powers), along with the perception that his security forces did not engage in the mass killings practiced by Germany, Spain, and Italy, led many Catholics to the conclusion that he was a model dictator. In fact, Salazar’s power was based not exclusively on his skill with the economy, but also on maintaining a political balance among the demands of the military, the Church, the urban middle class, and the conservative monarchists. The poor majority of Portuguese was kept in check by the Estado Novo through the police, a systematic denial of universal, compulsory education, and its skillful exploitation of the devotional and spiritual life of the Church, in particular the Fatima devotion, to keep the poor, undereducated majority in check. This was reinforced by the strong ally Salazar had in the Church: his Coimbra faculty colleague-turned Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira. His forty-one year term as primate of the Church in Portugal both preceded and outlasted Salazar’s as prime minister. The stability of the Estado Novo was enough that, in 1968, upon Salazar’s incapacitation from a stroke, the prime ministership was quickly passed on to another academic and a devout Catholic formed in Benedictine spirituality, Marcello Caetano. A lawyer by training, Caetano was internationally recognized as an authority in administrative law to the point that this right-wing politician’s work was studied in Soviet universities.
By the last decade of Salazar’s governance, the Estado Novo was under pressure. Externally, the Portuguese Empire, a hallmark of his rule, was under attack. Beginning in 1961, Portugal’s African colonies began their armed rebellion for independence. That same year, India’s armed forces launched Operation Vijay, which ended Portugal’s 450 year rule over its Indian colonies, most notably Goa. Also that same year, the newly independent government of Dahomey (now called Benin), seized Portugal’s smallest colony, the Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, which occupied five acres in the middle of its city of Ouidah. Its population consisted of two people literally holding down the fort for the metropolitan power, who upon capture were escorted by Benin’s army to the Nigerian border.
The Estado Novo was under pressure internally, too, with the Catholic Church departing from the role Salazar had envisioned for it as an uncritical support for his government. In 1958, the Bishop of Porto, António Ferreira Gomes, composed a letter to Salazar critical of the Estado Novo and calling for Catholics to take on their proper social and political responsibility to critically evaluate the Portuguese state and reform it. Gomes suffered a ten-year exile for the act, but this was the beginning of a growing agitation by Catholics for democratization, motivated by the shocking lack of human development (especially in education) and the yawning deficit in economic development in Portugal compared to the rest of post-World War II Western Europe. Catholic criticism of the Estado Novo came from the Portuguese Empire, too. In the Portuguese African territory of Mozambique, two bishops, Sebastião Soares de Resende and Manuel Vieira Pinto, criticized government policies in the area, including the army’s tactics in maintaining the empire.
Arguably, the majority of Portuguese Catholics supported the Estado Novo to the end. However, an increasing number of Catholic clergy and laypeople saw this form of government not as the means to order society as the Church taught in its social teaching, but as an entity which took on ever-increasing power and responsibilities it had no right to possess in the first place. No longer did these Catholics view democracy as an automatic threat to the Church, identifying it with the Jacobin extremes that characterized the early years of the Portuguese republic. They began to envision a future of authentic liberty that could be ordered through democratic means. The Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of democracy, and the many examples of the successful post-war democratic and economic development of Western Europe, led by Catholic Christian Democrats like Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, Alcide De Gasperi in Italy, and Robert Schuman in France, did not escape unnoticed by the Portuguese Catholic critics of their country’s dictatorship.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that the final “go” signal given by the coup leaders to their collaborators in the Portuguese Army to march on Lisbon, the playing of the Zeca Afonso song Grândola, Vila Morena, was aired over a Catholic radio station, appropriately named Rádio Renascença (Radio Renaissance). Many Catholics, in the heady months following the coup, allied themselves with leftist parties to dismantle the Estado Novo and the Portuguese Empire. Officially, the bishops exhorted the faithful to build a pluralist democratic system according to an understanding of democracy articulated by Catholic social teaching. Catholics took on a myriad of roles in these difficult years following the Carnation Revolution, where Portugal struggled to achieve a democratic society without slipping into chaos or civil war. In the end, they succeeded. Today, despite the economic crisis Portugal is still reeling from, few of its citizens desire a return to the Estado Novo. Instead, they debate over how to make the democracy that they have work better for all Portuguese, in the context of a global economy and the European Union.
Experiences like Portugal’s are why the Church, since the pontificate of John Paul II, rejects any form of corporatism in its dealings with the state.
David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
New Catholic Encyclopedia: s.v. “Salazar, Antonio Oliveira,” and “Portugal, the Catholic Church in”.
Phil Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).
Filipe de Meneses, Salazar: A Political Biography, (New York: Enigma Books, 2009).
W.S. van der Waals, Portugal’s War in Angola: 1961-1974, (Pretoria: Protea Book House, 2011).
Ramón Luzárraga is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona, where he is also Chair of the Department of Theology. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.