Faith and Progress: Does religion feed corruption?

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Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Last of two parts

Randy David expresses a quandary about Christianity in the Philippines many share: “We need to ask ourselves how we are able to blend so much religious fervor with a culture of corruption, or mix a manifest devotion to the exemplary figure of a selfless Christ with a life of greed, or gospel values with hate, oppression, and selfishness.”

Part of the answer lies in Christian doctrine itself. In the Gospels of Saints Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus said: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Throughout the Bible, from the fall of Adam and Eve to Jesus’s admonition about the willing spirit and the weak flesh, man’s sinfulness is acknowledged, and God’s forgiveness and reforming grace are implored.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul laments: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”


If the great Apostle to the Gentiles struggled with sin, it can’t be easier for less inspired Christians. That so many of us fall every day despite our devotion is hardly surprising.

How Christianity feeds corruption
Still, it is one thing to preach forgiveness for sinners, and quite another to feed corruption. And sadly, over the millennia, Christianity, like any other human institution, has in many ways abetted or even promoted the selfish abuse of power and privilege which constitutes corruption.

On the road to becoming a world religion, the faith of Jesus Christ took on the trappings of worldly power, ensconced as the state religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, then reigning over Medieval Europe, where popes crowned monarchs, ruled vast lands, waged war, and fell prey to pride, greed, lust, and other cardinal sins.

Thankfully, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation ended those excesses. Faced with revolts across Christendom, the Church disciplined the hierarchy and the clergy, stopped the selling of positions and indulgences, and withdrew from the fray of war and politics.

That sorry chapter in Christian history showed that even great religions, like all human institutions, can fall into deep corruption, dragging the faithful with them. Such moral descent invariably happens when the Church takes on or allies with wealth and power, as it did in Christianizing Latin America and the Philippines. Lord Acton’s dictum—“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—clearly applies here.

Colonial religion and Filipino morals
So it was when the faith came to these islands. Professor David noted that “our people first encountered Christianity as a tool of colonial subjugation” as the cruficix and the Bible accompanied the conquering muskets and cannons of Spain. And in the course of colonization, the Church became even more wedded to the country’s power structure.

In most settlements established over three centuries of Spanish rule, the friar was the only Spaniard in town, wielding both ecclesiastical and imperial authority. In this dual capacity, some clergy committed abuses chronicled, if partly exaggerated, in early Philippine nationalist writings, including the novels of national hero Jose Rizal.

Much larger in impact on Filipino morals, however, was the Church’s acquiescence to colonial rule with all its excesses, being the instrument of spreading and defending the faith. Among the most abusive policies was the encomienda system gifting Spaniards favored by the Spanish Crown with vast tracts of land, including all the inhabitants.

Scholars cite this colonial enormity as the origin of corruption in the country. Most encomenderos and their minions administered their sprawling lands with only their benefit in mind. That system circumvented the pre-Hispanic ethos of tribal leaders ruling for the common good, and inculcated the idea that authority can be exercised purely for the advancement of leaders and their families and friends.

To be sure, many religious spoke against abuses, especially those of encomenderos. In 1582, three years after becoming Manila’s first archbishop, the Dominican Domingo de Salazar even disavowed colonial rule itself. He convened and urged a council of clerics to declare that sovereignty “by natural right belongs to the Indios [natives]and neither the King nor the Pope can take it from them.”

However, given the Church’s reliance on Spanish might for missionary work as well as law and order in communities run by friars, most clergy accepted colonial rule. Those who didn’t might have seen their careers stunted, since the Crown had clout in major ecclesiastical appointments and allocation of Church revenues under the patronato real accord between the Pope and the monarchs of Spain and Portugal.

To fight graft, renounce power
After Spanish colonialism gave way to American rule, the Philippine Church ended its political role in the country, under the separation of Church and State followed by the United States. Moreover, vast colonial-era lands held by religious orders were broken up and distributed to farmers, further diminishing Church power and wealth.

But the Philippine Church’s closeness to the powers that be continued through the 1960s, with activists denouncing then Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos, the first Filipino Prince of the Church, for “clerico-fascism” during protests against the Marcos regime.

Only under his successor Jaime Cardinal Sin’s “critical collaboration” toward the 1972-86 dictatorship did the hierarchy begin openly opposing the abusive rich and powerful. Thus, Sin called out Filipino faithful against Marcos in 1986 and then President Joseph Estrada in 2001, both ousted in People Power uprisings.

Decades before then, individual bishops and priests opposed exploitation of the poor and nature, suffering threats, injury, or death. In recent decades, both hierarchy and clergy have shown strong and sustained opposition to government corruption, including illicit gambling protected by police, mayors and governors.

With Pope Francis telling prelates and priests worldwide to eschew extravagance and be close to the poor, one hopes the Church would be even more outspoken against excesses in both public and private sectors.

That includes avoiding activities that may suggest Church acceptance of corruption, like a bishop officiating a grand wedding for scions of a notorious drug lord and the police chief protecting him. Then Filipino Catholics would have much less reason to wrongly think that sleaze and sanctity can ever mix.

(The first part was published on Wednesday.)

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5 Comments

  1. joebert banderas on

    all man made religion is corrupt,There is a church mentioned in the bible w/c is owned by God the teachings are the true gospel in the bible.The Church of God 1 corinth 1:1 it was mentioned in 12 verses in the bible.in that church you can find the truth

  2. Mr. Saludo, you condensed Randy David’s 46-word “quandary about Christianity” into a 4-word question. “Does religion feed corruption?” You answered it historically by “How Christianity feeds corruption.” There is a hint of passing the buck of present day corruption here to history as evidenced by the quote below

    “Scholars cite this colonial enormity as the origin of corruption in the country. Most encomenderos and their minions administered their sprawling lands with only their benefit in mind. That system circumvented the pre-Hispanic ethos of tribal leaders ruling for the common good, and inculcated the idea that authority can be exercised purely for the advancement of leaders and their families and friends.”

    But, this column does not offer the cause for the present. In the quoted paragraph below, you tried to connect religion and corruption, you hesitated, then, concluded there is; but you did not provide the process.

    “Still, it is one thing to preach forgiveness for sinners, and quite another to feed corruption. And sadly, over the millennia, Christianity, like any other human institution, has in many ways abetted or even promoted the selfish abuse of power and privilege which constitutes corruption.”

    If we dig deeper, notice your words “forgiveness for sinners”. It only addresses the situation between God and man, but nothing is said about forgiveness between man and man. It only address only the action of God is to forgive, nothing about giving God justice for the offenses against Him, so same between man and man. Only on side of the equation/party is required to do something, the victim. Even from this you can see the inequality that implies the offender has to do nothing.

    “(I)t is one thing to preach forgiveness for sinners, and quite another to feed corruption.” Yes it does, if preaching forgiveness without equally preaching justice. Filipinos are doing plenty of forgiving but getting miniscule justice. If one seeks justice, one is labelled vindictive. We fear being called vindictive because it will make you look “unchristian.” People know that they will always be forgiven without having to make amends, to make restitutions, or give justice. That is why they get away with murder figuratively and literally. It encourages people to be corrupt because one does not have to pay for his wrongdoings. To preach justice is dangerous, People get killed for that. Journalists who expose injustices get killed. That is why, John the Baptist got beheaded. Justice is dictated by conscience not only by the courts. So it seems, it is preferable to preach forgiveness. You do not invite enemies. And that is why corruption is pervasive.

    Justice = Forgiveness

    God forgives but God also demands justice, not only for Himself but also for his creatures. If God is like us, Filipinos, He need not send his Son to die on the cross, but He did. After Jesus gives justice to God, God gave man forgiveness.

    Who then is our God?

  3. eucebio alcazar on

    spoken like a true atheist, blaming Christianity for the ills of society. The Church teaches morals not human weakness. You have to read and understand the whole bible and not pick and choose verses to prove your point.
    Pope Pius II hands were tied during WWII, when he spoke against the Nazi, more people got killed and when he does not speak (less people will be killed) and he was blamed for not speaking out. Same happened to our great Cardinals.
    And talking about our history, this is my question to you, was our history written by Filipinos during the Spanish era or was it written by the Americans to make them more saintly, because of what they did to us?

  4. joebert banderas on

    You cannot find in the bible as catholic church they have their bible but their teachings is against the bible.a man made religion

  5. By intuition, alam natin kung ano ang tama at mali. Pero ang pinipili natin ay ang mali, kaya may corruption. Ang magagawa lang ng mga religious organization ay patuloy na pagpapaalala sa mga tao, pero ang mga tao pa rin ang magdedesisyon kung sa tama siya o mali.