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.)