Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Democracy and the Catholic Church in the Philippines

A major cause of the weak sense of nationhood among many Filipinos is the historical connection between the Roman Catholic Church, the country’s dominant religious institution, and the colonial powers. To both the political and religious rulers of Spain, it was important that the Philippine Islands, named after the absolute monarch Philip II (1556-1598), be colonized and evangelized at the same time. The Spanish missionaries and friars blessed and legitimized the colonial enterprise. In turn, the colonial Church gained from the Spanish crown martial protection, support for its missionary efforts, resources for constructing churches, control over colonial education, and large estates from which much wealth was derived.

Spanish Catholicism was accepted by the natives partly because it reaffirmed their belief in the necessity of intermediaries in bridging the distance to the supreme deity. The primary structure of intermediation was maintained even though functional substitutions occurred: the saints and angels replaced the ancestral spirits or anitos, while the Catholic priest replaced the native shaman or babaylan. Thus, from the colonial period down to our times, most priests, ordinary devotees, and their popular devotions highlight the powers of the mother of Jesus and the saints as patrons, intercessors, or intermediaries more than their virtues of courage, wisdom, justice, and integrity.

Bishops tend to give great importance to intermediary power and undemocratic hierarchical authority partly because of their inherent duty to be guardians of the Roman Catholic tradition. Conservative pastors predominate in an institution that asserts the apostolic authority of the bishops and the primacy of the Pope. Yet there have been turning points and conjunctions in the history of the Church when, even for brief periods, the Church became both conservative and radical. Locally, one such turning point was the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) in 1991.

With the participation of selected priests, religious, and lay leaders, the bishops at PCP II asserted that, for genuine and lasting social transformation, “people empowerment” is necessary—implying “greater involvement in decision-making, greater equality in both political and economic matters, more democracy, and more participation” (PCP II Conciliar Document nos. 325-326). Nearly two decades after PCP II, however, it remains unclear to what extent the hierarchical Church is a genuine democratizing force in society.

Today, the hierarchy remains undemocratic in that its members—the clergy—are selected in a process with little participation from the laity, who form the great majority in the Church. Also, the clergy tend to be secretive about the assets and liabilities of dioceses, religious institutes, their schools, and their hospitals. Likewise, some Church organizations do not practice what is preached about the dignity of human work and the rights of workers to just remuneration and to “participative management” in which workers are involved in decision-making.

While the Church decrees that “bishops, priests, and religious must refrain from partisan politics” (PCP Decrees Art. 28 #2), and teaches that the laity, and not the clergy, ought to be at the forefront of the task to renew the political community in accordance with gospel values, some high-profile clerics and religious exempt themselves from these precepts. The late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin (1928-2005) had been criticized for sometimes acting more like a political power broker than a prudent moral teacher. To journalist and public relations practitioner Ramon Isberto, the Cardinal “always appeared to relish his role as mediator, go-between, and king maker or unmaker.”

In December 2006, Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias publicly called on soldiers “to defend the Constitution” by joining the “prayer rally” against Charter Change to be held at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila, and organized mainly by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. By issuing mostly moralistic or morally judgmental statements against the proponents of Charter Change, several bishops have not helped clarify the complex and muddled issue of the strengths and weaknesses of the 1987 Constitution.

Both Church and State have contributed to the weakness of democracy and patriotism in the country. As sociologist Arnold Alamon puts it: “The State and religion, the two institutions whose primary function is to forge social solidarity, have repeatedly failed in this task owing to their colonial origins. Instead, we continue to draw our moral identities from our clan memberships which served as our pre-colonial moral and political communities.”

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