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Dr. Jayeel Cornelio

Young Filipinos keep the faith but shun conventional piety

Michel Chambon
By Michel Chambon

08 June 2022

Jayeel Cornelio is an associate professor of sociology and associate dean for research and creative work at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. His research revolves around changes in religious landscapes in the contemporary Philippines concerning youth, politics and development. In 2016, he published the book Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines, which explores how young Filipinos, especially university students, identify and relate to their Catholic identity. The book shows that while some of their views on marriage, family and ethics may appear theologically conservative, most young Filipinos are what he calls "creative Catholics." They define their religious views and practices from liberal and individual values rather than from mere obedience to the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

What brought you to study young Catholics in the Philippines?

The project began as my Ph.D. dissertation when I was studying at the National University of Singapore more than a decade ago. I wanted to study religion in the Philippines and how in particular it was taking shape in the lives of Filipino overseas workers. As I thought about religion and read about the sociology of religion, I could relate to many of these ideas. For example, secularization is a very basic concept in sociology. As society modernizes, religion fades away — that's the secularization thesis. As I read books, it clicked in my mind — exactly what is happening in the Philippines now?

Recent Interviews

When I was reading Sociology of Religion by Grace Davie, I realized it could even be my own story. As I studied in primary school and then high school, I realized I was a deeply religious person as I knew how to pray the rosary. Eventually, I converted from Catholicism to become an evangelical. This was quite different from the trajectory of my peers, many of whom did not care about Christianity or religion. That was how it dawned on me that maybe I should investigate the lives of young people in the Philippines.

What was your methodological approach and how does it compare with other social sciences?

My fieldwork was all primarily based on interviews. I also conducted focus group discussions to test some of the ideas before really embarking on the interviews. I carried out some participant observations that made up the bulk of my data source. I conducted interviews with around 70 college students in university-based religious organizations in Metro Manila.

There are three types of universities in the Philippines — state-funded public universities, private sectarian universities and private universities owned by a corporation or a family.  My institution, the Ateneo de Manila University, is run by the Jesuits. It is private and Catholic.

These private Catholic universities are good in their ways. But they are markers of "class" in Filipino society. State universities are less expensive, and these attract more students from generally low-income backgrounds. On the contrary, universities like Ateneo attract more students from elite families, from private high schools. Covering this ground was very important for me. I focused specifically on students who were involved in Catholic organizations on campus for one or two reasons.

I thought that since they were more involved, they had more things to say. At the same time, I also wanted to know if they wanted to understand what the Catholic life was all about. Maybe these Catholic students, because they knew more about their faith, would have a lot more things to say. However, this consideration brought surprises for me later.

After the interviews, I realized their involvement in a Catholic organization does not necessarily mean they were more religious. So, my finding was that being spiritual does not mean being religious.

The interviews brought up a lot of interesting stories and nuances that would not be visible if I did a different track for sample surveys. Surveys are useful to give us a terrain, a demographic overview of who the Catholics are, where they are, and how religious they are, but it does not tell us the story behind those numbers. What do those people feel? How do people think? Why do people behave in a particular way?

This photo taken on April 8, 2021 shows philippine priest Father Paul Woo (2nd R) learning a dacne from the video-sharing platform TikTok from youth members of a social communication ministry of his parish in Navotas City, suburban Manila. (Photo: AFP)

What was the main finding of your research and what is the main argument?

The whole book uniquely challenges the secularization thesis, which denotes that religion is bound to fade away when a society modernizes. Many sociologists have argued this in the past, and many have also challenged it. Especially after the 9/11 terror attacks, they realized that religion is not going away.

In my case, religious transformation happens right under our noses. If you talk to adult lay Catholics and Catholic priests about their thoughts on the Catholic youth today, they will simply say that youth are not as religious as their parents — they do not go to church anymore, they are immoral, and they make bad choices about premarital sex and so forth. They would also say that today's Catholic youth are more inclined to liberal values. These observations seem to establish that the Catholic Church has failed to keep youth in the fold.

But when you talk to these young people, they will surely say they are Catholic, but they do not necessarily go to church every Sunday, for example. But they believe that they are more Catholic. My research shows that young Filipino Catholics are not losing their faith, but they are embracing the faith in a way that concerns them more. And this is what our religious leaders need to recognize.

For example, I once interviewed a student named Dina, the president of Gawad Kalina, a counterpart to the Habitat for Humanity established in the United States by a charismatic Catholic group. It carries out activities among young people on campus. Dina told me: "Well, Kuya Jay [elder brother], truth be told, I would rather volunteer to build a house in a rural community on a given Sunday than to attend church, fall asleep and pretend that I was listening. By building a shelter for rural poor people, am I not enacting my faith in a much more convincing and practical way?" And that question drove it home for me.

I interviewed many Catholic youths involved in Catholic organizations who would repeat the same thing. They would even say that "there are far too many Catholics who know the doctrines, their faith and their catechism. But are they applying any of that in their own lives?"

I have heard students say the same thing again and again. You put that together. They are looking for practical applications of their faith more than the traditional applications, or practices or piety if you want to be more sociological or ethnological. They are less interested in doctrines and piety.

They are also very critical of what they believe is the hypocrisy of the Church. Catholic leaders back at the time were critical of certain policies such as legalizing the use of contraceptives in the Philippines. One of my informants said, "Kuya Jay, they are always critical about what the government says about the use of artificial contraceptives, family planning and so forth. But is the Church doing anything to help the poor? That is the question."

The Church is doing a lot for the poor. But in her mind, it does not make sense that you are resisting a policy that should help our population and so forth. So, on the one hand, they are looking for practical applications, but on the other they are also deeply bothered by what they feel is the irrelevance of the Catholic Church in social life. So, in the end, what do we have here? You have Catholic youth who are not secularized, who are not losing their faith. They are in the end embracing the faith in a transformed manner. I call them creative Catholics.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

Drawing the boundaries is not easy for a qualitative researcher like me. During the research, the age gap between the students and me was just five years. I was 24 or 25, and my interlocutors were about 19, 20 or 21. And in some cases, the questions posed difficulties as the interviews were all about their private moments and deeply personal stories. So, the interviews would become like counseling sessions. I could not count how many students cried while sharing the struggles in their families, having unemployed parents, making ends meet, dreaming that they would get a good job after their college and so forth. These are deeply emotional stories for students who struggle a lot. Maybe less so among elite, rich, affluent students and more among state university students.

So, in some cases, I had to act like a counselor. I let the interview become like a counseling (cathartic) session. Interestingly, the age gap helped in a positive way to make them feel comfortable that I was a safe person to talk to.

The other danger could be a little extreme. Because as a resource person, they felt I was romantically interested in them. This happened once or twice, not always. It came to a certain point when one student asked me rather uncomfortable questions afterward. Because to maintain transparency, I gave my email and my phone number and told them that they could reach out to me just in case we have trouble during the interview out of ethics and professionalism. But later it caused some trouble. So, I honestly and frankly told them the questions were personal because I wanted to understand what faith had to do with their personal stories. That was a learning experience for me. And in the course of my research, I realized that the boundaries need to be very clear.

Male volunteers of the National Youth Commission (NYC) wear female shoes during a march for Women's Month in Manila on March 7, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Have young Filipino Catholics changed in the 15 years since your research?

I am not sure whether things have changed dramatically. I would argue that it has become more pervasive now.

First, I think there are more Filipino youth who are critical of the institution but do not necessarily lose their faith. Secondly, in the last 15 years, the religious landscape in the Philippines has changed in such a way that you have more evangelical youth and evangelical megachurches like in Singapore. In Singapore, megachurches attract a lot more English-speaking, highly educated youth, the middle class. The same pattern is seen here in the Philippines. Are we already seeing a mass exodus from the Catholic Church to the megachurches? No, we are not.

The demographic patterns are still robust. 80 percent of the population is still Catholic although church attendance has dramatically declined. Back in the 1990s, 60–70 percent or so of Filipino Catholics would go to church every week, every Sunday, which was very high. But statistics show that in the past six or seven years, it has dropped to 30-40 percent. This is a big change. Is a wave of secularization sweeping the Philippines?

Again, I am not going in that direction. What I feel is that these Filipino youth are more and more looking for authentic expressions of faith that they would not necessarily find in conventional practices or conventional piety. This is a source of inspiration. This calls for deep reflections on the part of ministers, Catholics and religious leaders. Are they meeting young people where they are? Do they understand what they need? I understand that some ministers who have read my work simply dismiss it and say, "Oh! They will come back to the church later." That is not necessarily sociologically accurate, that is also sociologically not the pattern. If you lose them, you lose them. Do not assume that you are timeless with your approaches. This is something important for us to think about.

Mitzo Jonelle Tan (L), international spokersperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippins (YACAP), speaks during a protest in suburban Manila on March 19, 2021 as part for the global cleanUp Standard Chartered Bank campaign. (Photo: AFP)

How has the research changed your understanding of Catholicism and your faith?

I think I have become a far more ecumenical, reflexive and progressive Christian over time. I have become more progressive and reflexive about what I say and about the relevance of Christianity in the everyday life of Filipinos. And I think this is because young Filipinos who are critical of the Church's political statements, political interventions and statements about certain policies feel that these are not necessarily reflective of what the society needs.

This is a very different religious landscape. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, whenever the Catholic Church said anything, the people listened because it was the only credible institution. Back then, during the leadership of Ferdinand Marcos, the Church was a credible and formidable institution. But in the 21st century, the Catholic Church is no longer appealing as it used to be in the past.

I feel that my research, instead of being a criticism of the institution, is a call for a deep reflection. And that has a personal impact on me as well because I look at the findings as a professor, as a teacher, as a mentor, and as a minister in my church. I need to ask always, what am I interested in? The proclamation of truth per se or to meet this person where he or she is? Both are mutually not exclusive from one another. But ultimately truth has been used and employed by religious leaders in a way that hurts more people. Personally, I feel that every minister needs to be very sensitive. You are looking at a very different generation now. We need to meet them where they are.


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