Needs of the Heart

A Social and Cultural History of Brazil's Clergy and Seminaries

Kenneth P. Serbin

From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

Selected as the best book in English for 2005–2007 given by the Brazil Section of the Latin American Studies Association

“In Needs of the Heart, Kenneth P. Serbin examines the rise and crisis of a model of priestly vocation that was not ‘traditional’ but rather a new discipline, institutionalized in the mid-nineteenth century. Its intimate, splendidly documented analysis of men’s responses to that model can give us a constructive perspective on the coverups of sexual misconduct within the American clergy. Needs of the Heart is also an extraordinary history of the Sixties in Latin America. The countercultural and experimental movements within Brazil’s seminaries, ranging from psychoanalysis to ‘living alongside the people,’ offer us a touchstone for judging the promise and contradictions in the post-1945 Christian quest for individual fulfillment and social justice.” —Dain Borges, University of Chicago

“Kenneth Serbin’s Needs of the Heart, extraordinary in its breadth, depth, and compelling analysis, unveils the triumphs and tragedies of Brazil’s priests and the seminaries that formed them. The current world-wide tensions and scandals engulfing the priesthood are reflected in this study—a study that needs to be replicated throughout the Catholic world.” —Donald Cozzens, John Carroll University, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood

“Kenneth P. Serbin has gathered superb research into an extremely well-written, important book. It will provide a basis for further research by other scholars in a number of fields, including the church and politics in Latin America, Brazilian politics and society, and liberation theology.” —Thomas C. Bruneau, Distinguished Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School

Needs of the Heart traces five centuries of conflict and change in the life of the clergy in Brazil, home to the world’s largest and arguably the most dynamic branch of the Roman Catholic Church. Serbin examines how priests participated in the colonization of Brazil, educated the elite and poor in the faith, propped up the socioeconomic status quo, and reinforced the institution of slavery, all the while living in relative freedom from church authority. Earthy men, many flouted the rule of celibacy and became embroiled in politics.

Serbin also describes the conservative modernization of the clergy, effected through seminary education, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emphasizing discipline, the seminaries aimed to mold a new kind of priest—moral, isolated from politics and social entanglements, and, above all, obedient and celibate. However, the social, cultural, and religious upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s led students to reject the seminary. Seminarians worked to form a national union, and many left seminaries to establish greater contact with the people. The seminarians’ movement sparked the practice of liberation theology; it also reflected the quest for professional and individual development, including optional celibacy. The Church responded to its seminarians’ demands for personalized education by attempting to build an ambitious program in liberation psychology, a phenomenon as important as liberation theology.

Seminaries necessarily dealt in the psychology of sexuality, friendship, and other basic human tendencies—what historian Marc Bloch has called the “secret needs of the heart.” Serbin argues that the “needs of the heart” were a cause of the political transformation of the Brazilian Church, a transformation catalyzed by the profound identity crisis experienced by clergymen and seminarians in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of this generation of seminarians and priests is intermingled with the challenges and fears present during the repressive military dictatorship (1964 to 1985) and its aftermath.

Serbin’s definitive history of the Brazilian clergy combines social science research, including over one hundred interviews, with cultural and social theory and a sweeping historical perspective. Through his history of the clergy and seminaries, he provides a history of modern Brazil itself.

KENNETH P. SERBIN is professor of history at the University of San Diego.


“. . . Serbin’s superb new study offers a comprehensive look at the church from the colonial period to the end of the military government in the 1980s. He takes the long view in order to demonstrate his central argument: that the “progressive” Catholic Church of the twentieth century, with its political activism and social consciousness, did not emerge out of a void but rather developed out of patterns already set in the colonial period that shifted as they played out against the backdrop of a changing Brazil. . . . The book is a welcome addition to the field of Brazilian history and the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America.” — American Historical Review

“This work stakes out entirely new terrain in the history and historiography of Catholicism and society in Brazil. . . . Uncompromising and yet compassionate in its judgments, this second major work on the Church since the author’s Secret Dialogues (2000) draws ably and amply on hitherto untapped, century-old archives of key religious congregations charged with clerical training and of Brazil’s national hierarchy that oversaw it. . . . In uncovering these notable findings and ably setting them within the push and pull of world and national forces, Serbin reconfirms his standing as one of the leading historians of Brazil’s past.” — The Americas

“_Needs of the Heart_ provides a rich analysis of the historical development of the Catholic Church in Brazil. Much more than in institutional history, this work examines how, over the course of five centuries, priests navigated the divide between Europe and America as they participated in shaping a Brazilian nation as well as a distinctly Brazilian church.” — Hispanic American Historical Review

“. . . By focusing on priests, and connecting their experience to broader socio-political dynamics, Professor Serbin enriches the stories of liberation theology and of the role played by the Catholic church in promoting democracy and social justice . . . a significant contribution to scholarship on Latin America.” — Latin American Studies

“The long and winding history of the Brazilian Catholic Church is thus revealed in Serbin’s analysis as the partial work-product of its primary foot soldiers—its clergy. As such, the book provides a critical complement to previous work which has focused with relative exclusivity on the policies and practices of church leadership, whether in Brazil or the Vatican.” — The Catholic Historical Review