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Friday, February 3, 2023

The Moderate Face of Catholic Sao Tome and Principe

Catholicism has gained a firm foothold with the increase in population in Sao Tomé over the years

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: When Portuguese explorers set foot on the empty shores of Sao Tome and Principe in 1470, they also brought Catholicism with them. The lush green twin islands of Sao Tomé and Principe bear the name “Saint Thomas,” as christened by Portuguese navigators.

Since then, Catholicism has gained a firm foothold with the increase in population in Sao Tomé over the years.

Population and the roots of Catholicism in Sao Tome

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From being totally uninhabited in 1470, the population of Sao Tome has gradually grown to 220,000 in 2022. This is not an explosive growth rate.

But the population of Sao Tome and Principe increased from 65,000 in 1960 to 223,000 in 2021, representing a growth of 247% in just 61 years. During the same period, the median growth of the global population was only 157%.

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The roots of Roman Catholicism in Sao Tomé and Principe are inextricably linked to Portuguese colonial expansion and the Atlantic slave trade. In their efforts to convert the islands into sugar-producing colonies, the Portuguese imported people from other parts of Africa in the late 15th century, who effectively became slaves on the plantations. By the 16th century, Sao Tome became the world’s largest producer of sugar.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

In the early years, the efforts of the Portuguese missionaries in spreading Catholicism among the local population were affected by several factors, like high mortality rates, the departure of Portuguese priests, political tensions, etc.

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However, in 1534, Sao Tomé became the seat of the new diocese that stretched from present-day Liberia to South Africa, even though there was no resident bishop in Sao Tome.

Being geographically disconnected from Portugal, Sao Tome’s society and culture developed on a different trajectory in isolation from Lisbon and Rome.

Even though Roman Catholicism got firmly entrenched as the dominant religion on the islands in the 16th century, a distinctive creole society developed on these islands, mainly due to the continued influx of African laborers.

The smaller migrations from Portugal, including expelled “New Christians” (converted Jews), civil and political criminals from Portuguese African colonies, and planter-settlers, contributed to this diverse Creole culture.

Although Catholic clerics participated actively in the slave trade, they also played an active and stabilizing role in the factional struggles that characterized political life in São Tomé and Príncipe. 

During the plantation period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church did not dispute the dominant plantation owners.

In 1504 Augustinian missionaries built the first church in So Tomé, the Nossa Senhora da Graça. This Catholic church, which later became the cathedral for the diocese of Sao Tomé, comes under the direct spiritual leadership of the Pope in the Vatican.

It became the seat of a diocese in 1534 and was reconstructed between 1576 and 1578 during the reign of King Sebastian of Portugal. It underwent more modifications in 1784, and later in 1956, it was remodeled with a Neo-Romanesque main façade by the people of Sao Tome.

As the largest and most important manifestation of Catholicism in the country, the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Grace proudly stands in People’s Square in the city centre, close to the Presidential Palace.

Since independence in 1975, the church has been run primarily by expatriate priests who have not played an official political role.

Our Lady of Conception Church is another important parish church in Sao Tome city, affiliated with the Catholic Church. Also known as the Red Church because of the red color of its exterior, it has a single bell tower and a statue of the Virgin Mary at the entrance.

In addition to the Cathedral, several other churches dot the city, with the most interesting examples being the Igreja da Conceiço, built by King Manuel between 1495 and 1521; the Church of So Joo, built-in 1562; the Churches of Bom Jesus and Bom Despacho; and the Capela de So Sebastio, built inside the So Sebastio Fortress in the early 17th century.

After independence, Sao Tome adopted a secular policy, mainly driven by the complex, hierarchical society that had arisen, despite Portuguese intervention and one that was based on several sociocultural groups. 

This complex society, which Sao Tome inherited at the time of independence, comprised the Filho da Terra (sons of the land), who descended from mixed unions of slaves and slave owners, the Angolares (descendants of fugitive slaves), the Forros (descendants of freed slaves), the Tongas (contract laborers), and finally, the descendants of Portuguese people.

However, the secular Marxist ideology did not weaken the society’s Catholic or other Christian orientations.

Though deeply religious, Sao Tome’s society departs in certain ways from Catholic orthodoxy and is relatively liberal by Western standards.

Major Christian holidays are celebrated. Baptisms, processions, and funeral masses are crucial, but Sunday masses and communions are not so central.

In the celebration of Patron Saint Day or other festivals, they combine religious ceremonies with adaptations from their ethnic culture. Weddings are rarely held in the church.

Despite their adherence to Catholic views about marriage, few So Toméans either desire or can afford church weddings. Though formally opposed, the practices of polygamy, polyandry, and childbirth outside of wedlock are accommodated by the church.

Although Sao Tomé and Principe inherited pre-independence Portuguese laws prohibiting abortion, in practice, abortion policies are more liberal today and birth control is practiced. Divorce is common even though it’s frowned upon by the church.

Freedom of religion in Sao Tomé and Principe is guaranteed by the constitution. While Catholicism has the largest following in the country (68%), there is a surprisingly sizable community of atheists and agnostics (19%).

Protestants, including Methodists and Evangelicals, are present in good numbers (9%). A tiny minority of other faiths, including Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, are also present.

The Catholic traditions were reaffirmed in 2018 when the Vatican signed an agreement with Sao Tome and Principe on the recognition of the Catholic Church and its ecclesiastical institutions as a “juridical personality” on the islands.

With frequent interactions with modern European cultures and the maturing of its democratic processes, Sao Tome today presents a moderate and pragmatic face to the world.

Also Read: Sao Tome and Principe: An Ecotourism Eden or a Star Tourist Performer


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