Sexuality Policy Watch

The mountain delivered a pope

By João Manuel de Oliveira* 

Captura de Tela 2017-07-07 às 16.02.46The legend says that Portugal is a conservative country with a supposedly glorious past, whenever colonization and its engagement with the slave traffic is eliminated from the equation. It is also described as a profoundly religious country, deeply marked by the influence of endemic Catholicism. Sociologists, using an equation that opposes Northern-ethical (capitalist?) Europe to its South Catholic borders immersed in the logic of forgiveness, continue to describe our rectangle – to which the Brazilian poet Chico Buarque requested the aromas of rosemary – as profoundly peasant, backward and devout. In this vision, Portugal is a place attached to the saints, smelling of candles and peppered with churches across the landscape. Social sciences developed elsewhere — and in Portugal just after the 1974 Revolution — quite easily adopt the hegemony of national positivism to describe us. Feeding on the imagination that what is really good is to “be in Oxford, given the misery we have come to live in amongst the lice”[1].

Many social scientists who belonged to the left (though not as much these days), when comparing Portugal to other countries,  appear to have forgotten that this is a country in Europe and belonging to the European Union. Or that it has been one of the longest colonial empires in history, even when it is placed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos between Prospero and  Caliban (between colonizers and colonized)  in the Shakespearean tempest. This semi-periphery position is (unconsciously) emulated, ratified and legitimated by the national positivism of social sciences, meanwhile it happily and smiling kneels to praise each and every Anglo-Saxon who comes by.

Captura de Tela 2017-07-07 às 16.13.14This is my point of departure: an open critique of the diagnoses of Portugal  that insist on its need to develop, to democratize and to decolonize. This view conceals the different temporalities of a country with a very peculiar configuration: an unending colonization extending across the 20th century, a sandwich between empires and more empires but also between colonies that metamorphosed into metropolis. These features imply incomparability with the large majority of Western European countries and reveal the failures of under-development theory (a colonial theory in itself) and of the policy logic applied by colonial powers to the colonized territories. The semi-periphery effect is a narrative under which the modernizing experience of Portugal is exclusively attributed to the impact of structural European funds (yes indeed much would not have been possible without them), while concealing the utopia of the revolution, the country of April 1974, the left on the streets, the total rupture with fascism. It also conceals the people that Glauber Rocha excitedly interviewed – as done by many other film directors – to map a revolution that, as in a cascade, has transformed political lexicons, has opened new horizons of possibilities and has pushed Portugal to make the unthinkable. It makes disappear the people described in dominant sociographies as backward in relation to the more European others.

Captura de Tela 2017-07-07 às 15.59.53For me, as a feminist, revolution started in a book: the one by famous three Marias. Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Velho da Costa who in their Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters) who have at once undone gender, fascism, colonization and its rotten war, as well as the national Catholic patriarchy. In 1972, they have claimed for abortion rights and the rights to one’s own body (the title of a 1975 book). This would just happen in 2007 but when it happened it signaled to the Catholic Church that its ineluctable strength was gone. I cannot not remember Paula Rego series on abortion. Even so, quite recently, we have seen a bunch of very Catholic men proposing that women who abort should be subjected to an ultrasound as to ‘see the embryo’, a measure aimed at curtailing the ability of these ‘shameless women” to make choices. The proposal was made (and approved) in the last days of the politics of austerity on place between 2011 and 2015. This was when a government of lackeys played all the games imposed by the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank – including financial pirouettes and other acrobatics – by there demising the Portuguese welfare state, degrading livelihoods, restricting access to health care and eroding wages and incomes. A time of blind obedience and of murdering austerity without any concern for the people. It is a fortune that we have got rid of that when in a historical turn the left has united against the obedient lackeys and to their very surprise has downed them from power. They said good night and good luck, auguring us an abyss ahead. They thought that without them the masters of Europe would push us against the wall. But this is not what happened.

Captura de Tela 2017-07-07 às 16.20.29This is a history that began long before, however. When the Catholic Church and the crazy right wing have lost their power to curtail women’s lives and spaces in the 2007 abortion referendum. Since then we realized – and the whole left has got it clear – that the Church did not control the political majority in relation to this matter. Many factors contributed for this weakening of the Catholic influence: a more grounded laicité, the gradual diminishing in the number of people practicing religion, transnational exchanges, cosmopolitism – and the aspirations they imply — the repudiation of criminalization of women, the work performed by Doctors for Choice that has divided the medical professional camp. More importantly, the so-called pro-life arguments – in fact anti-choice – were perceived as too regressive and out of place by contemporary Portuguese society.

This first kick on the locked doors of conservatism led to a succession of other legal reforms: same sex marriage, the gender identity law, the right of same sex couples to adopt, assisted reproduction for lesbians and other non married women. We are now waiting for the law on gender self determination that will put an end to the colonization imposed by certain quarters of the medical order on the bodies of our trans and intersex comrades. Even when our point of departure is not the liberal model – we fully acknowledge the limitations of conventional juridical frames- this turn was not predicted by the male social scientist that usually deploy their comments in the public arena (the use of the masculine is here deliberate).


The weekend of May 13th 2017 is an astounding illustration of what has not been predicted. This date – for certain sectors of Catholicism – evokes the supposed apparitions of Fatima, in 1917, which can be more properly read as a first essay to de-stabilize the first Republic and an open condemnation of Russian Revolution: an effort made by Catholic and national conservative forces to contain republicanism and socialism in Portugal. Past hundred years, in this same date, we have seen the papal apparition in the sanctuary in the act of canonizing the central figures of the 1917 event, Francisco e Jacinta, young pastors who  have supposedly witnessed the celestial visit. In 2017, the press has conveniently prepared for a blast: the newspapers had titles that remembered the apparitions, TV channels have planned dozens of interviews, questions were raised about the meaning of faith and the millions of visitors that would flow towards Fatima. And indeed, many have gone there. Fátima, this religious touristic phenomenon that is as much in fashion as the airbnb’zed Lisbon sardines and the a-typical tuk-tuks roaming the streets. The pope came to Portugal and much national circumspection was expected, with ladies fully dressed and veiled in black.

However, what happened was that Benfica won the soccer championship and Portugal, for the first time in history, won the music festival Eurovision. The parties have taken over Lisbon and the rest of country, while Fatima remained imperceptible. Soccer and music entirely swallowed the Vatican visit, which has been reduced to the status of a minor star in the week – end. This shift forced editorial adjustments and astonished those who follow the dreams of the Oxford scholars (and of those of other almae  mater of lesser qualification) about the ‘natives’ (this pejorative expression that speaks more about those who use it than about the people itself). Despite the extensive preparation for the sacraments, despite the many years of catechesis and substantive ideological efforts to make it happen, the visit   of Bergoglio – another social marketing pope — was no more than an eclipsed passage through a country that, contrary to the image projected by certain sociological modalities,  is much more diverse, has much to express and does limit itself to just one type of food. We are omnivores.

* João Manuel de Oliveira is a Portuguese gender and sexuality scholar. He has a PHD in Social Psychology and lectures at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL). From September 2017 on will be a visiting professor at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil.
Image 1 – Salazar a vomitar a pátria (Salazar vomiting the nation) by Paula Rego
Image 2 – April 25th 1975 Clove Revolution
Image 3 – English edition of the New Portuguese Letters
Image 4- Poster of the 2007 Referendum on Legal Abortion
Image 5 –  Queer Protest in Lisbon photo by Miguel do Carmo


[1] Expression attributed to the King Dom Carlos (1889 to 1908 when he was murdered) to describe the country and its endemic poverty.

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