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88 Working Paper

The Marian Apparitions in Fátima as Political Reality: Religion and Politics in Twentieth-Century Portugal

May 30, 2024 Paul Christopher Manuel


The reaction of the Catholic faithful to the supposed miraculous events at Fátima serves as an illustration of how religion can influence the political life of a country. In this instance the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three ordinary Portuguese country children over a six-month period starting on 13 May 1917. During these visits the children reported that she asked them to pray for the souls of sinners, for the soldiers in World War I, and for Russia. During and immediately after the Marian apparitions in Fátima, powerful conservative players in Lisbon seized on the symbolism of the event to discredit the anticlerical First Republic. As the situation unfolded, this religion-politics dynamic took the form of popular Catholic resistance in the countryside to an urban-based elite-driven secularization, setting the stage for the subsequent emergence of the Salazar regime. Some political scientists and historians have treated these events only as a case of popular reaction against modernity, without any enduring consequences. In this view, Fátima was not much more than a useful symbolic tool of conservative resistance to the First Republic, and it set the groundwork for the subsequent dictatorship. This paper, in line with recent scholarship offered by David Blackbourn, William Christian, Ruth Harris, and others, will suggest that social scientists need to treat the consequences of wide-scale popular religiosity more completely–not as a theological reality, but as a political one. Certainly, some cases have taken on more lasting political life than others, but all cases of popular devotion offer a revealing window into the political culture and life of a country.