CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


TFP and the Heralds of The Gospel: The Religious Economy of Brazilian Conservative Catholicism

by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at the 2009 Meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (ASREC), Washington D.C., April 2-5, 2009


Methodological issues

The aim of this paper is to discuss how the sociological theory of religious economy may be relevant for analyzing the competition in an intra-brand Catholic market such as contemporary Brazil. The analysis will focus on a case study of a family of conservative Catholic organizations and movements with a common origin in the thought and action of Brazilian academic Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (1908-1995) and different contemporary developments.

One of the main tenets of the religious economy theory is that “to the degree that religious economies are unregulated and competitive, overall levels of religious commitment will be high. (Conversely, lacking competition, the dominant firm[s] will be too inefficient to sustain vigorous marketing efforts, and the result will be a low overall level of religious commitment, with the average person minimizing and delaying payment of religious costs)” (Stark and Finke 2000, 201) The theory predicts that, contrary to the secularization thesis, religiousness levels will be higher and religious organizations will be stronger where pluralism is greater.

Religious competition, as competition in other fields, may be either interbrand or intrabrand. Competition, for example, shows its healthy effects in the car market not only when several car manufacturers compete in the same market, but also when a semi-monopolistic car company is able to differentiate between very different product lines and models, thus creating intrabrand alternatives where little interbrand competition exists. This may also be true for religion. Outside the religious economy field, sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1988) analyzed large churches as conglomerates of several different micro-churches (congregations, movements, religious orders), each with a very large degree of internal autonomy and at times pursuing competing agendas (Luhmann 2000).

“Differentiation” was long perceived by sociologists as a key feature of Roman Catholicism in predominantly Catholic countries such as Brazil or Italy. In Italy, largely autonomous movements, brotherhoods and similar institutions, with very different theological and political opinions, account for the large majority of church-goers. In short, Roman Catholicism is so large that what appears at first sight as a Catholic monopoly in fact hides a vibrant intrabrand religious market where semi-independent Catholic firms compete for the allegiance of the Roman Catholic population. This intrabrand competition is, of course, not identical to its interbrand counterpart. It may, however, cause similar effects, particularly when one considers that in the market on which religious economy theory was originally based, the United States, the most visible competition is intra-Protestant, with the different Protestant “firms” largely recognizing the other firms as legitimate participants in a common Christian enterprise. Competing Roman Catholic firms in Italy or Brazil would claim just the same.

Religious economy focuses on supply. It postulates that demand remain comparatively stable, even in the long period. This happens, the theory argues, because consumers, including consumers of religion, tend to distribute themselves in market niches according to their demographics, financial capabilities, and preferences (the latter being perhaps, as Gary Becker argued, the most important factor in markets of symbolic goods: Becker 1976). Niches tend in turn to remain stable.

Stark and Finke (2000, 197) have created several models of religious demand which distinguish between niches according to the concepts of strictness, and costs. Religion is more strict when its symbolic costs are higher, and when its members are expected to believe and behave in a more traditional and conservative way than society at large. Religious consumers distribute themselves in niches of different strictness. By simplifying more complex models, we may distinguish between five niches: ultra-strict, strict, moderate-conservative, liberal, and ultra-liberal. The liberal niche includes those consumers which are prepared to accept the liberal values prevailing in the modern society; the ultra-liberal niches, those who enthusiastically embrace these values and are willing to give them a religious sanction. By contrast, consumers in the strict niche see the prevailing liberal values as negative and dangerous, and those in the ultra-strict niche require absolute separation from these values, perceived as truly perverse and even demonic. Consumers in the moderate-conservative niche do not utterly reject modern values, but feel free to re-interpret them based on religious tradition, while in turn re-interpreting religion in order to make it relevant to the modern world.

Religious consumers also occupy different niches according to their ideas and aspirations about the relationship between religion, culture and politics. Ultra-strict religious consumers identify religion and culture (and religion and politics), and would not admit any distinction. Those in the strict niche regard the identification as desirable, but realize that it is not always possible, and leave room for some pragmatic compromise. Liberals accept, and ultra-liberals promote, modern separation between religion and culture (above all, between religion and politics). Moderate-conservative appreciate that there is, and should be, a distinction between religion, culture and politics, but would like religion to remain a relevant factor in the public arena.

One of the conclusions of the religious economy theory most supported by empirical data is that niches are not equal in dimensions. There are, indeed, more consumers in the central moderate-conservative niche than in the others; and the strict niche is larger than its liberal and ultra-liberal counterparts. Religious economy has confirmed what Dean M. Kelley (1927-1997) argued in his Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Kelley 1972), and has answered Kelley’s many critics. American data have confirmed in a quite spectacular way the growth of conservative and moderately conservative churches, and the decline of liberal denominations. Religious economy, particularly through the works of Laurence Iannaccone, has contributed an explanation based on the free rider theory. A religious group plagued by a high number of free riders would offer to its members boring and unsatisfying religious experiences, and many would simply walk away. Conservative and (moderately) strict groups, by raising costs, successfully reduce the number of free riders, thus enjoying more success than their liberal counterparts (Iannaccone 1992; 1994).

It is also the case than the liberal and ultra-liberal religious niches are smaller because consumers interested in the symbolic goods offered in these niches have a great number of secular alternatives, which is not true for the other niches. A consumer who wish to express its support for modern liberal values may do so in dozens of non-religious organizations, without having to pay the specific costs associated even with the most liberal forms of religion. Religious consumers, thus, are willing to pay reasonably high costs for obtaining the benefits associated with intense and satisfying religious experiences, offered by groups where the number of free riders is limited.

These costs, however, should remain reasonable. If costs are too high, only a handful of radicals will be prepared to pay them. This explains why the ultra-strict niche remains smaller than the strict one, and much smaller than the moderate-conservative niche (Iannaccone 1997; 2000; Iannaccone and Introvigne 2004). It should also be noted that, while niches normally remain stable, religious organizations move from niche to niche. Many organizations start in the ultra-strict niche but, as their foundational charisma becomes routinized, gradually move towards the mainline, first to the strict and then to the moderate-conservative niche. They may also go on and move further left to the liberal and ultra-liberal niches, but in this case their membership will normally decline. Very few extremist groups remain forever in the ultra-strict niche, where they end up declining or turning to violence. Most move on. This is, of course, a religious economic way of revisiting the classing “sect to church” model elaborated by H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962: see Niebuhr 1929). With the difference, however, that there is nothing unavoidable in the process (Finke and Stark 1992), and that confronted with the decline experienced when they reach the liberal niche, some organizations may pass through conservative revivals, and in fact go back “from church to sect”.

Brazil, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and TFP

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1908, the scion of two prominent aristocratic Brazilian families (his grandfather’s brother, João Alfredo Corrêa de Oliveira [1835-1915], had been the prime minister of Imperial Brazil responsible for the “Golden Law” which abolished slavery in 1888: see Introvigne 2008 for all this section and a bibliography). In 1908 Brazil was largely a monopolistic religious market, dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, although in the larger marketplace of ideas Catholicism was challenged by a vigorous anticlerical and secularist movement. The aristocratic families were divided among themselves: the same João Alfredo Corrêa de Oliveira was also a Grand Master-elect of the very anticlerical Brazilian Freemasonry (he never assumed the charge, being too busy with his political offices), although he eventually converted and died a pious Catholic. On the maternal side of Plinio, there were also both liberal anti-clericals such as General Antônio Cândido Rodrigues (1850-1934), a cousin of both parents of Plinio’s mother, and saintly Catholic figures. The latter included Sister Dulce Rodrigues dos Santos (1901-1972), a cousin of Plinio’s mother whose process of beatification has been started in 1997.

Plinio’s mother herself, Lucilia Ribeiro dos Santos Corrêa de Oliveira (1876-1968), was extremely pious, and exerted a notable influence on his son. Lucilia’s mother, Gabriela Rodrigues Ribeiro dos Santos (1852-1934), was a monarchist activist, and introduced Plinio at a very young age to the circles gravitating around the exiled Imperial family (Brazil was a republic since 1889). Plinio attended a Jesuit high school in Sao Paulo before earning a doctorate in Law at that city’s university. He joined the Jesuit-led Marian Congregations in 1925, founded his University’s Catholic Action in 1929, and quickly emerged as one of the leaders of Sao Paulo’s Catholic activism. He was also active as a monarchist, and co-operated with the African Brazilian poet Arlindo José da Veiga Cabral dos Santos (1902-1978), a member of the Marian Congregations and the founder of Brazil’s largest monarchist movement known as Patrianovism.

 In 1932 Corrêa de Oliveira was one of the founders of Brazil’s Catholic Electoral League (LEC): not a political party but a group selecting and supporting Catholic candidates in various parties. Although LEC leaders were normally not candidates themselves, the peculiar electoral system in the State of Sao Paulo persuaded the LEC to ask Corrêa de Oliveira to run at the 1933 elections for the National Assembly which should draft a new Constitution. He ended up, at age 24, being the candidate elected with the highest score in the whole of Brazil.

The dictatorship of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882-1954) – which Corrêa de Oliveira strongly opposed – put an end to his political career. He continued his activity as a lawyer and university professor, and in 1940 became president of Sao Paulo’s Catholic Action.

Interbrand competition within Brazilian Catholicism was almost absent before the 1930s. Modernism, the liberal dissent against the Vatican which had been popular in Europe and the United States at the beginnings of the 20th century, had been almost completely absent from Brazil. In the 1930s, however, political divisions emerged. The most liberal Catholics were in favour of Vargas, since they considered his social programme as quite progressive. A sizeable number of Catholics joined the right-wing Integralist opposition party of Plínio Salgado (1895-1975), whose members, the “green shirts”, were often described as the Brazilian fascists. The general secretary of the Integralist party in 1934 was himself a priest, Father Hélder Câmara (1909-1999), who after World War II will become an influential and liberal bishop (Todaro Williams 1974, 450). Traditional conservatives such as Corrêa de Oliveira, most of them monarchist, disliked both Vargas and Salgado, which they regarded as different incarnations of the struggle for a modern, centralist, populist and anti-traditional system of government. The political division created an effective intrabrand and intra-Catholic competition, the more so since theological issues were soon added to politics. Those favoring either Vargas or Salgado often espoused a more liberal theology imported from Continental Europe, which penetrated the Catholic Action and gained the cautious support of some bishops.

Corrêa de Oliveira strongly opposed the new theology, as evidenced by his 1943 book Em defesa de Ação Católica. The book was both successful and controversial. The Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Carlos Carmelo de Vasconcelos Motta (1890-1982), reacted to the book by excluding Corrêa de Oliveira from all official positions within the Archdiocesis. The two priests who had offered the most open support to Corrêa de Oliveira, Father Antonio de Castro Mayer (1904-1991) and Father Geraldo de Proença Sigaud S.V.D. (1909-1999), were also marginalized. The Vatican, however, later both praised the book and appointed Fathers Mayer and Sigaud as bishops.

It is with Father Mayer, now Bishop of Campos, that Corrêa de Oliveira launched in 1951 the magazine Catolicismo. By that time, the religious market had experienced several notable changes in Brazil. The growth of Pentecostalism had created effective interbrand competition. The new liberal theology was now firmly established in Brazil, and will eventually acquire the strong support of a new generation of bishops, including Hélder Câmara, appointed in 1952 auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janeiro and who, first in this position and then as Archbishop of Recife, will be a dominant influence in the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) for more than forty years.

Gradually, the intrabrand Catholic competition shaped itself with offers catering to the different niches: liberal (which became the main target of the CNBB under Câmara), ultra-liberal (with groups influenced by Marxism, which would later express the most radical currents of liberation theology), moderate-conservative (courted by several religious orders and brotherhoods, and by those “silent bishops” who disapproved of the CNBB, although they did not attack it explicitly: Bruneau 1974, 114), strict and ultra-strict. While a small minority of bishops offered a brand of Catholic theology catering to the strict niche, the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), founded by Corrêa de Oliveira in 1960 with a core of celibate, full-time members proposed an offer which catered to the ultra-strict niche in both its theology and structure.

At Vatican II, Brazilian bishops plaid an important role. Some of them, according to Melissa Wilde, practiced a “mimetic isomorphism” towards Communism  (Wilde 2007b, 23; see Wilde 2007a). They believed that Communism was a vital and growing force in Brazil, and that Catholics should act isomorphically by both offering a believable anti-capitalist message to the poor and adopting some of the structures developed by the left-wing political organizations. This attitude after Vatican II generated the movement of the base communities (CEB).  Anti-capitalism, on the other hand, was at the very core of liberation theology. Although the latter came in various shapes and degrees, it became the dominant orientation of the Brazilian Catholic establishment in the 1970s and early 1980s. Some CEBs, openly Marxist, covered the ultra-liberal niche, and the CNBB repositioned itself firmly in the liberal niche. Those who still wanted to cater to the moderate-conservative center, such as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, experienced some hostility from the CNBB. Corrêa de Oliveira’s TFP was explicitly disavowed by the bishops. A process of marginalization and amplification of deviance followed, in which the TFP moved from the strict niche to the ultra-strict.

Catholics unhappy with the CNBB did exist in that niche, and TFP recruited almost two million donors prepared to contribute more or less regularly to the campaigns carried out by some 1,000 full-time members. Marginalized as it was by the bishops, the TFP was less able to cater to those in the strict and moderate-conservative niche. Both niches suffered a lack of offer between Vatican II and the 1980s.

In the 1980s, the events surrounding the separation between the arch-conservative French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) and the Vatican created a counter-effect. Corrêa de Oliveira refused to follow Lefebvre in his break from Rome, and this eventually led to the separation between the TFP and its main supporter among the Brazilian bishops, Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, who supported Lefebvre and was eventually excommunicated by the Vatican together with him in 1988. A significant number of followers of Mayer (who, in the latest years of his life, became Corrêa de Oliveira’s harshest foe) both created a competition in the ultra-strict niche with the TFP and caused the association to reposition itself. In order to differentiate itself from Bishop Mayer’s followers, the TFP slowly moved from the ultra-strict niche to the strict. However, marginalization by the CNBB continued.

The insufficient intrabrand competition may explain why in the interbrand religious market the Catholic Church lost ground to the Pentecostals, whose number in that period may have surpassed the number of active, church-going Catholics (Chesnut 1997; 2003). Recent studies suggest that CEBs, although studied with great interest by social scientists, were always less successful than they claimed to be (see Boff 2007; Chaouch 2008). From the point of view of religious economy, their offer reached almost exclusively the liberal and ultra-liberal niche, while most Catholics are located in the other niches. While the CEBs proclaimed the Church’s preferential option for the poor, quite a few Brazilians of the poorest classes voted with their feet and expressed a preferential option for the Pentecostals.

The pontificate of John Paul II (1920-2005), and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s mandate as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, marked Rome’s attempt to discipline the Brazilian Church and to change the prevailing state of affairs. Liberation theology was condemned (in particularly strong terms by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s instruction Libertatis nuntius in 1984), as were prominent individual liberation theologians, including Father Leonardo Boff O.F.M., who eventually left the Catholic Church. More moderate bishops were appointed. Although change was very slow and the process has not been completed to this date, most ultra-liberal offers were declared non-Catholic or quietly silenced. A significant number of bishops supported movements catering to the moderate-conservative niche. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal obtained a larger recognition. Other moderate-conservative groups such as Opus Dei or the Legionaries of Christ were actively promoted at least by some bishops. CEBs declined and in a number of parishes were quietly replaced by Charismatic and other less liberal groups. As the religious economy theory may have easily predicted, this move towards niches where the demand was higher was quite successful in terms of popular reaction to the offer. The hemorrhage towards Pentecostal churches, if not arrested, was significantly slowed down (see Chestnut 2003).

Within this context of the 1990s and the 2000s, Vatican strategists – with the help of some bishops in Brazil – also realized (of course, without using this language) that there were quite a few Catholics in the strict and ultra-strict niches of the religious market, and that abandoning them may have been a mistake. In Europe and elsewhere, initiatives were taken towards a reconciliation even with those ultra-strict movements which were clearly schismatic such as the Society of Saint Pius X founded by Archbishop Lefebvre, although events of 2009 confirmed that such initiatives are difficult and may involve public relations problems for the Vatican and the Pope himself. In Brazil, after the death of Corrêa de Oliveira in 1995, a process which had started in the previous last years matured into fateful events.


Fundadores and Heralds of the Gospel

There had been several internal discussions during the life of Corrêa de Oliveira about the exact nature of TFP. Since it included a majority of members which were celibate and lived in communal houses, some leaders favored its evolution into a religious society. This was discussed several times within the leadership, and ultimately rejected since it would have submitted the TFP to the direct jurisdiction of the Brazilian bishops, who were hostile to the movement. The proceedings of these discussions, however, show that Corrêa de Oliveira was not persuaded that the model of a religious society or congregation was suitable to TFP. In fact, he thought that TFP was somewhere in the middle between a religious congregation and a movement of lay Catholics active on cultural and political issues.

In fact, a tension did exist between the two possible structures – religious congregation and lay movement. It was only resolved through the charismatic leadership of Corrêa de Oliveira. When he died, those favoring the model of a religious congregation and those maintaining the model of a lay movement separated. The separation was quite painful, and was complicated by issues of leadership and by the question whether women should also be admitted (during Corrêa de Oliveira’s lifetime, they could not become members but only “cooperators” of TFP). It led to one of the most complicate court cases in the history of Brazilian law, which started in 1997 and is not concluded to this date.

To make a very long history short, a majority of the Brazilian members, under the charismatic leadership of João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, did not accept the by-laws of TFP which vested all authority in a directorate of eight older “founding members” (fundadores), a circle of which Clá Dias was not part. Clá Dias’s supporters sued the TFP claiming that certain provisions of the by-laws were either invalid or against the Brazilian Constitution. They lost in first degree in 1998, but won on appeal in 2002. While a recourse filed before the Supreme Court is pending at the time of this writing, as are other cases aimed at defining the exact implications of the 2002 appeal decision, the latter remains (provisionally) in force. Accordingly, the name TFP is now controlled in Brazil by Clá Dias’ followers (while his opponents still control the trademark in other countries, including the United States). The original “founding members” and those loyal to them cannot use the name TFP and their group is called Association of the Founders (Fundadores), although they also operate an Institute Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

Clá Dias and his friends, however, make but a limited use of the trademark TFP. In 1999 they founded a different organization, the Heralds of the Gospel. The latter is what they would have liked the TFP to become: a religious congregation, recognized by the Vatican in 2001 as an association of pontifical right. Their members practice celibacy and include women, who live in separate houses. The Heralds downplay in their publications and Web sites their historical link with Corrêa de Oliveira, who in fact is rarely mentioned, although the older members maintain a strong private loyalty to his memory. They claim that the Heralds of the Gospel, an association of pontifical right, and the (Brazilian) TFP, a lay socio-political organization, are in fact different and separate. Most of the activities of those members of TFP who sided with Clá Dias in 1997, at any rate, are now carried out under the name Heralds of the Gospel. Some former members of the TFP and other Heralds have been ordained as priests, including Clá Dias.

The history of the Heralds of the Gospel is somewhat extraordinary. They grew very rapidly, and have now several thousand celibate members in 57 countries. Both their Vatican recognition and the ordination of several leaders as priests has been surprisingly quick. They have also obtained a prominence in the activities of the Brazilian Catholic Church best evidenced by their very public role during the Pope’s visit to Brazil in 2007 and the celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the Archdiocesis of Sao Paulo in 2008. As some bitter comments by theologians who still support liberation theology have noted, they may downplay their link with Corrêa de Oliveira but the leaders were, after all, largely the same persons who in the early 1990s were marginalized by the Brazilian bishops for their roles within the TFP.

There are several interesting sociological questions to be asked. Clearly, as mentioned earlier, there have been some changes within the Catholic Church, both in general and in Brazil, which make conservative authors such as Corrêa de Oliveira both more acceptable and more mainstream. Scholarly studies evidencing the orthodoxy of Corrêa de Oliveira’s thought have also helped. But the prominence of the Heralds goes beyond all this and, on the other hand, today they hardly mention Corrêa de Oliveira or his political thought. Without presupposing the existence of a single conscious main strategist, we may see the emergence of the Heralds of the Gospel as part of a Catholic strategy in Brazil (and other countries) to re-modulate its offer in order to meet the demand in the moderate-conservative and strict niches, which had been left somewhat unattended in the 1980s and early 1990s, thus inadvertently favoring the growth of some Pentecostal movements. The Heralds of the Gospel cater exactly to these niches, and their success confirms that it existed there a demand in search of an offer. The fact that the Heralds of the Gospel, whose leadership is largely composed of former prominent TFP members, downplay their relationship with Corrêa de Oliveira allows a number of Brazilian bishops to support them without either revisiting the history of the CNBB or alienating the more liberal members of the clergy and of the episcopate itself.

On the other hand those who did not follow Clá Dias, i.e. the Fundadores, are still active in Brazil and elsewhere. Rumors of their demise were grossly exaggerated: there are still hundreds full-time celibate members (in their case, male only, since they maintain the founder’s policy excluding women from full membership). They cater to the stricter sectors of the strict niche and compete with the remaining followers of the Lefebvre-Mayer movement for the allegiance of those Catholics willing to remain in the ultra-strict niche. Their message is of course of interest also to Catholics in the moderate-conservative niche, and they would like to offer it to everybody. Both Fundadores and Heralds declare their submission to the Pope, and genuinely like Benedict XVI. The Fundadores, however, reserve the right to keep alive Corrêa de Oliveira’s criticism of the CNBB and to protest quite vocally whenever, in their opinion, Brazilian bishops deviate from the Roman orthodoxy.

Religious economy explains why the Fundadores both did not disappear and remain smaller than the Heralds of the Gospel. Religious demand tends to remain quite stable in the long period. The strict niche is smaller than the moderate-conservative niche, but is still comparatively large. The ultra-strict niche is even smaller, but not insignificant. By operating in these niches, without a very significant competition particularly among these Catholics who want to remain loyal to the Pope, the Fundadores’ offer continues to meet a specific demand. On the other hand, the demand is unevenly distributed among the niches and there are more Catholics in the moderate-conservative niche than in the strict one. By positioning themselves in the moderate-conservative niche the Heralds of the Gospel are able to attract a larger audience than the Fundadores, who mostly operate in the strict niche.

Corrêa de Oliveira’s posterity seems to play a significant role in the restructuring of the intra-Catholic Brazilian religious market under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Its history confirms that, despite an almost exclusive focus by media and scholars for decades on the liberal niche of the market, and on liberal groups such as the CEBs and liberation theologians, other niches also exist. This paper, of course, was written for an ASREC conference within a perspective which takes theories of religious economy almost for granted. Fundadores, Heralds of the Gospel, Vatican officers and Brazilian bishops, in the (unlikely) event that they read this paper, would probably claim that, by acting as they did, they didn’t have in mind markets, niches or even church growth strategies but the Gospel and the truth only. Nothing in this paper is meant to deny this very legitimate claim. Yet, actions motivated by the love for the Gospel are still open to a religious economic analysis, which may help in explaining whether some forms of missionary activity or apostolate succeed while others fail or meet with but a limited success.


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