In contrast to Spain, where the presence of Catholics on both sides of a vicious civil war dictated a cautious response by the Vatican, there were two countries where Pius XI’s vision of a ‘golden mean’ between invasive totalitarianism and weak democracy was apparently being realised by authoritarian governments. The first was Portugal, where in 1911 the new Republican regime had introduced some of the most anticlerical legislation in Europe. The Church was an easier target for urban radicals, many of whom were freemasons, than either the army or the large landowners of the south. Church property was nationalised, the university of Coimbra’s famous theology faculty was abolished, and feast days were restored to the world of work. Foreign priests and Jesuits were expelled, and both civil marriage and divorce were introduced. Religious teaching was prohibited in all schools. Both women and the 65 per cent of the population who were illiterates were disfranchised to destroy any potential Catholic voting base. Virtually the entire hierarchy were either exiled or expelled and in 1913 the Republic broke off diplomatic relations with Rome.
The fight-back against the efforts of a radicalised minority to impose French-style laicisation began among students in the devoutly Catholic north, and particularly among students at Coimbra. Two leaders emerged, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira and Antònio de Oliveira Salazar, of the Academic Centre for Christian Democracy, out of which developed a political party called the Portuguese Catholic Centre Party. Circumstances enabled this moderate party to make its influence felt. During the First World War, the Republic needed the Church to provide chaplains to its army of Catholic soldiers, while missionaries became crucial to the retention of a vast overseas empire at a time when the military was overstretched. By 1919 the Republic and the Vatican had restored diplomatic relations.
Initially, Salazar, an academic economist, subscribed to democracy as ‘an irreversible phenomenon’, but by the 1920s he and many others had become disenchanted with what was a highly corrupt local version of it. When he was elected to parliament in 1921, his revulsion for the opening session was so great that he walked out and returned to university teaching the same day. Between 1911 and 1926 Portugal had eight presidents, forty-four governments and twenty attempts at coups or revolution.
In 1926 the parliamentary republic was finally overthrown by general Manuel de Oliveira Gomes da Costa. Within two months, he was in turn deposed by general Carmona. Since Carmona had few ideas of his own, he depended upon conservative lay Catholics, including Salazar, who was twice brought in to right Portugal’s parlous finances. Salazar was careful to separate his political ambitions from his Catholicism, even if this meant tensions with his old student friend Cerejeira, who had become archbishop of Lisbon. When Salazar told the latter that he represented ‘Caesar, just Caesar, and that he was independent and sovereign’, Cerejeira shot back that he represented ‘God … who was independent and sovereign and, what’s more, above Caesar’. Salazar’s dictatorship retained the Republic’s separation of Church and state.
Restoring the Portuguese economy at a time when the world was sliding into depression lent Salazar a wizardly mystique, which he used to civilianise the military dictatorship from within. In 1930 he proclaimed a new National Union, an authoritarian nonparty whose primary purpose was to demobilise opinion. One of its first casualties was the Catholic Centre Party, which, Salazar argued, would impede the march to dictatorship. Thereafter Catholic Action became the main vehicle for the Church’s plans to reconquer Portuguese society for Catholicism.
President Carmona appointed Salazar premier in July 1932. He proclaimed the New State a year later. Catholic corporatist teachings, however misunderstood, were combined with a form of integral nationalism derived from Charles Maurras. The quiet professorial dictator, who avoided public speaking and staffed his regime with numbers of fellow academics, faced one remaining challenge. Portuguese disillusioned with the low-key tone of Salazar, and suffering under his austere economic policies, turned to the National Syndicalist Blue Shirts, who modelled themselves on the Fascists and Nazis. Salazar dealt with this radical Fascist threat deftly. He co-opted its more opportunist members into the regime, and then in July 1934 dissolved the remainder. This hostility to the National Syndicalists was similar to that of the Portuguese Catholic hierarchy. Referring to their desire for a ‘totalitarian state’ he asked: ‘Might it not bring about an absolutism worse than that which preceded the liberal regimes? … Such a state would be essentially pagan, incompatible by its nature with the character of our Christian civilization and leading sooner or later to revolution.’
Salazar saw little difference between the Communists, Fascists and Nazis, all of whom were wedded to a totalitarian ideal ‘to whose ends all the activities of the citizen are subject and men exist only for its greatness and glory. Portugal had no imperial ambitions – its empire was already the world’s fourth largest – and the regime dissociated itself from Nazi antisemitism, welcoming Jewish refugees fleeing their oppressors. The regime’s object was to entrench and intensify conservative Catholic values rather than to experiment with a ‘new man’ or woman. That lack of ambition, which extended to an aversion to modernising the nation’s economy, may partly explain why Salazar remained in power in this backwater until 1968.