A 'powerless' church in the Philippines

Lack of political clout or influence should give way to inspiring through the power of the cross and the Spirit
A 'powerless' church in the Philippines

Filipino Catholics join a religious procession in Cebu City during the International Eucharistic Congress in 2016. Many lay movements in the Philippines are "pious organizations" lacking in social engagement. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

 

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has built up a reputation of being a powerful and influential institution. During the martial law years, it was the only institution that stood up to the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

Church people were at the forefront of the resistance against the dictatorship, providing alternative sources of information when media was suppressed, monitoring human rights violations, organizing protest rallies, and collaborating with groups and movements fighting for freedom. 

The church had a big part in the ouster of Marcos a few weeks after the country's Catholic bishops came out with a pastoral letter denouncing electoral fraud and after the late Cardinal Jaime Sin appealed to the people to go out into the streets.

The iconic image of the "people power revolution" was the multitude of people, including priests and nuns, bringing crosses, statues of saints and rosaries, facing the tanks and soldiers. People power was linked with church power. 

The church continued to exercise an influential role in the post-Marcos era and even in the ouster of a corrupt and immoral president and the rise to power of Gloria Arroyo. The power of the church was projected in the image of Arroyo being sworn into office at a Marian shrine before Cardinal Sin and the papal nuncio.

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Fifteen years after Arroyo's ascent to power, with the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte, much has changed. It appears that the power of the church has waned. The church is now perceived by many as powerless and lacking influence or political clout. This was already apparent during the presidency of Benigno Aquino with the passage of the Reproductive Health Law.

The 2016 national elections made the seeming lack of church influence more evident. Duterte considered the elections as a plebiscite between him and the church. Duterte's landslide victory was regarded by him as a defeat of the church — proof of its powerlessness and waning influence. 

The Iglesia ni Cristo or Church of Christ — whose leaders can dictate members who to vote for — appears to be even more powerful. Thus Duterte could insult and bully the Catholics without fear or restraint despite the church's offers of prayers and vigilant collaboration.

Duterte does not have to worry about any church-backed movement to oust him. He can do anything he likes without any vigorous resistance from the church — whether it is to carry out his election promise of more extrajudicial killings, re-impose the death penalty, give the deposed corrupt dictator a hero's burial, or fully implement the reproductive health law.

In fact, he can count on the support or acquiescence of the majority of Catholics — including many priests and nuns — who voted and campaigned for him even as he insulted the pope and promised to destroy the church. 

So what accounts for the church's apparent powerlessness? 

Even if church membership accounts for over 80 percent of the population, the church is not a monolithic organization whose members actively live according to its teachings and obey its leadership. 

Church unity — especially in the political sphere — is non-existent. There is no such thing as a Catholic vote. The majority of church members are nominal and seasonal Catholics who are either ignorant of church teachings or who ignore them or selectively follow whatever suits them.

The results of the recent elections would give the impression that the majority does not follow its conscience, or have no conscience — lacking a sense of right and wrong. For many there is nothing wrong with killing, stealing, cheating, lying, or committing adultery. An appeal to conscience is futile.

The country's Catholic bishops can come out with pastoral letters about these issues but very few will listen — not even Catholic politicians who are products of Catholic educational institutions.

There are many lay movements in the church but they are simply pious organizations lacking in social engagement. The majority of our Basic Ecclesial Communities are still Gospel sharing groups or liturgical assemblies incapable of inspiring personal conversion and mobilizing for social transformation. 

One cannot entirely blame the majority of nominal Catholics for lacking in conscience and for ignoring church teachings. The leadership of the church — the clergy and religious — and our Catholic institutions must admit a lot of shortcomings. We continue our maintenance mode rather than adopt a more missionary strategy. Our efforts and programs in new evangelization and catechesis lack vigor, creativity and effectiveness and do not lead to personal conversion and formation of conscience. 

We are not exercising enough our prophetic vocation nor do we empower or inspire the laity to do so. The clergy have become less credible due to allegations of luxurious lifestyle, financial anomalies, and sexual misconduct. Even if these are the faults of a few, these have been sensationalized by the media and have increased anti-clericalism. These can become a hindrance to carrying out our prophetic mission under the new regime. 

The apparent powerlessness of the church can be a blessing in disguise. It should make the church more humble and devoid of arrogance. The church cannot influence or dictate what policies and laws the government will adopt. It cannot be a powerbroker. All it can be is to be a powerless servant and prophetic church. 

All that we can do is to vigorously carry out our mission of new evangelization and catechesis and focus on the formation of conscience, empower the laity, form communities of missionary disciples in our parishes and Basic Ecclesial Communities capable of confronting evil and transforming society in the future. In doing so, nominal and seasonal Catholics will hopefully be transformed as genuine disciples of Christ. All these can be possible with a renewed clergy.

The real power of the church will ultimately come not from its political clout or influence but from the power of the cross, the power of the Spirit that will renew the face of the earth.

Father Amado Picardal C.Ss.R is known for his activism and advocacy for human rights. He is executive secretary of the Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.

 

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