Portuguese independence from its Iberian neighbours in the twelfth century (1143) was of course decisive in the creation of a new political body. But without recognition by the Pope in Rome, Portugal could not be considered to have a real independent existence. Over approximately the first two centuries of its existence as a new independent entity, Portuguese sovereigns were vassals of the Catholic Popes. And the latter used their prerogatives more than once, even to excommunicate and replace kings. However, throughout the following centuries the relative positions changed (into the socalled jurisdicionalismo, or control of local Church institutions by the King). By the end of the Middle Ages we still find the State and the Catholic Church intertwined. However, these two powers tried to balance the mutual benefits they could achieve. The State would use religion as legitimation and a social control device; the Church would use State power as a secular arm for the propagation of the Faith and for facilitating its mission.

The Reformation and the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants hardly reached Portugal. The ideas of Luther, Calvin, and others were not popular either at the Court or among the general population.

Hence, when we arrive at the first liberal revolution (1820) and to the enactment of a Constitution based on liberal ideals we cannot be surprised at the statement in Article 25 of the first Portuguese Constitution (1822): “the religion of the Portuguese nation is the Roman Catholic”. Other religions were allowed only to foreigners. Furthermore, their cult could not be exercised in public places or in public temples.

During the last eightyfour years of the Monarchy, two further Constitutions were enacted: one in 1826, which was to remain in force, with some interruptions, for most of the time until the Republican revolution (October, 1910); the other one in 1838 which was in force for a mere couple of years. They were both emphatic: the Catholic religion was the official religion of the State. However the author of the Constitution of 1826 (King Pedro IV himself) granted to all, for the first time in Portugal, the right of not “being persecuted for religious motives provided the State religion is respected and morality is not offended” (Art. 145(4)).

During the final decades of the nineteenth century, legal concessions to the freedom of religion and conscience were few despite the de facto political liberalisation.

The Republican revolution (1910) was also a religious revolution. One of the most significant decisions of the new republican authorities was the proclamation of the principle of separation of Church and State (Decree of 20 April 1911, “Law of Separation”), obviously inspired by the homologous French Law of 1905. The Constitution of 1911 confirmed this principle.

Due to some radical Jacobin pressures and probably also to the conservatism of the Catholic Church, the principle of separation was not interpreted as prescribing the neutrality of State institutions towards the Church. Separation in many instances simply meant opposition. Instead of being neutral, the State often adopted a negative position on religion and on the existence of God, and became involved in a permanent feud with the Catholic Church. But despite some lack of moderation, this was the beginning of a long process leading to a civil rights approach. Freedom of religion and conscience began to be recognised as a fundamental aspect of human dignity.

On 28 May 1926 an authoritarian uprising put an end to the liberalrepublican regime. The Constitution of 1933 was a creation of Salazar. His connections with the Church hierarchy and the Catholic movement were obvious. However his Constitution was cautious in religious matters and the previous liberalrepublican achievements were not completely erased. Article 46 of the Constitution stated that the State remained separate from the Catholic Church and any other religion. And Article 45 stressed the principle of equal treatment of the different denominations, freedom of organisation and worship, and the neutrality of teaching in State schools.

This constitutional balance was soon disrupted. Through consecutive constitutional amendments, from 1935 (Law 1910) to 1971, the Roman Catholic religion recovered its position as “the religion of the Portuguese nation” (amendment of 1951, Law 2048) or “as the traditional religion of the Portuguese nation” (amendment of 1971, Law 3/71).

But the wording changes in the Constitution were strictly semantic as they were not really important. This is because the relations between State and Catholic Church were set out in the Concordat agreed between Portugal and the Holy See (as two subjects of public international law) in 1940. This Concordat was partially in force until December 2004.

The Concordat system was unquestionably a system of inequality. In 1971, during the “liberal phase” of the authoritarian regime, Law 4/71 tried to mitigate these inequalities by acknowledging in general terms some institutional rights to be enjoyed by other denominations and some civil rights by their believers, though not equal rights compared with those enjoyed by the Catholic believers.

Nearly equal treatment was only achieved through the Constitution of 1976, further especially by Law 16/2001 of 22 June (Law of Religious Liberty). Another step towards this aim was taken with the new Concordat between the Portuguese State and the Holy See, which was signed on 18 March 2004.   

Vitalino Canas

Canas, V. (2019). State and Church in Portugal, in G. Robbers (ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 483-486


Portugal is a country with very deep Catholic roots, largely marked by the history of the Second Crusade and the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors. The first Portuguese monarchs in the 12th and 13th centuries were Christian knights strongly linked to the efforts to Christianize Europe promoted by Bernard of Clairvaux, among others. These roots would totally condition the history of Portugal and the way in which religion has been understood, taught and transmitted over the centuries. Portugal is inseparable from the history of the Catholic Church and incomprehensible without it. 

This means that over time the relations between political power and religious power were almost like two sides of the same coin. Medieval monarchs were theoretically subordinated to religious power, which gave them an almost metaphysical mission, legitimacy and dignity. This does not mean, in practice, that there were no internal tensions. They were substantive and were often associated with the authority to appoint bishops and consecrate chapels and churches. Likewise, monarchs sought to limit the Pope's supreme power and withdraw from his jurisdiction whenever they deemed it convenient for their interests. Even so, it was common for monarchs to donate large properties to the Church and to the religious orders that were taking root in the Kingdom of Portugal. The result was the accumulation of ecclesiastical heritage over the centuries, a fact that would cause distortions and conflicts at the economic and social levels. But the inseparable relationship between political power and religious power remained and was strengthened when, in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed between Portugal and Spain, concretizing and adjusting the division of lands and seas made by the papal bulls Inter Caetera, of the Pope Alexander VI, Borgia. Thus, the foundations of the missionary mandate were laid, which would guide Portuguese navigators in the discovery and colonization of new lands in America, Africa and Asia. 

The greed for ecclesiastical property and for the primacy of political power over religious power in the colonies created more tensions between political and religious power in the 17th and 18th centuries, with strong attacks on religious orders and growing uneasiness and impatience on the part of influential sectors of the rising bourgeoisie

In 1820, under the influence of the French Revolution, a liberal revolution took place in Portugal, taking advantage of the royal court's flight to Brazil following the Napoleonic invasions. In the 19th century, the Catholic religion continued to be the official religion of the State, although with new attacks on religious orders and confiscation of their property and some gains for freedom of conscience and expression and for the private religious freedom of foreigners. In 1910, the republic was proclaimed and religious freedom and the separation of Church and State were decreed, in the midst of new nationalizations of ecclesiastical property. The relations between the Church and the State assumed new points of tension that the Concordat of 1940 tries to attenuate. The freedom of religious confessions made small advances with the 1933 Constitution of the Estado Novo and, later, with the Religious Freedom Law of 1971. But it was after the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, and especially with the promulgation of the 1976 Constitution, that religious freedom and the separation of religious communities from the State were definitively assured. The culmination of this long and tumultuous process is represented by the Religious Freedom Act of 2001 and the Concordat of 2004. Since then, religious freedom, of the majority and minorities, has known broad and effective protection unprecedented in the country's history.

This aspect must be underlined, due to its importance. There have always been religious minorities in Portugal, such as Jews and Muslims. Over the centuries, due to the circulation of ideas and people, minorities of Protestants, Evangelicals, Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons emerged; it is impossible to mention them all. In the past, when they were not openly persecuted, they could be legally and socially discriminated against. The 2001 Religious Freedom Act radically changed the situation, creating a climate of equal religious freedom and even interreligious solidarity. This is visible, for example, when different religious communities take joint positions on divisive issues such as abortion or euthanasia. The latest census of 2021 shows that Catholics are 80.2% of the population, Orthodox 0.88%, Muslims 0.4%, and Jews 0.033%. On the other hand, in the last 10 years, Evangelicals went from 0.84% to 2.1% of the population, the highest increase ever recorded. The same allows us to conclude that the 2001 law has allowed a true competition of religious ideas, although still bearing only slow and marginal effects.

                   Jónatas Machado




Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by

Johnson, T. M., & Grim, B. J. (eds.)(2024). World Religion Database. Leiden-Boston: Brill 

General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Portugal in

Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples

The text of the 2001 Religious Freedom Act is available at 


The list of the “rooted” RBMs in Portugal and the law that establishes the register of collective religious persons are available at the website of the

Comissão da Liberdade Religiosa 

A report on the Portuguese legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in 

U.S. Department of State: Office of International Religious Freedom 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: Portugal   

Further information can be found on the website

Aid to the Church in Need – ACN International

See in particular

Fundação AIS – ACN Portugal (the ACN’s website devoted to Portuga)

and the

ACN International, Religious Freedom in the World Report: Portugal (last updated 2023)

An analysis of the Constitutional Court case-law on issues concerning law and religion is provided by 

Magalhães, D. (2021). Religious Freedom in Portugal. Problems and Solutions in Complex Times. Warszawa: CAS-Centrum Analiz Strategicznych, Instytutu Wymiaru SprawiedliwoĹ›ci

Specifically on the BOs rights, data and information can be found in

Humanists International – The Freedom of Thought Report (last updated 2021, Septembr 9). Portugal 

For an analysis of the State-religions legal system see

Bacelar Gouveia, J. (2019). Religion and Law in Portugal. Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer Law International

Canas, V. (2019). State and Church in Portugal, in G. Robbers (ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 483-510

A sociological analysis of religious minorities can be found in 

Coutinho, J. P. (2019). Minorias religiosas em Portugal (Religious minorities in Portugal). REVER - Revista de Estudos da Religião, 19(1), pp. 167-185 



1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restriction of rights
1 low equality
0 equal treatment of RBMs
0 no gap between religious majority and minorities
-1 high gap between religious majority and minorities


(source: World Religion Database, 2021)