Pope Francis is dragging the Roman Church into the mean streets of the “Third World,” to confront the global issues of poverty and inequity; and the Philippine bishops are among the national hierarchies most reluctant to go along.
Francis is the very first Pope from Latin America—arguably the most afflicted by these social problems. The continent is also where the Christian faith is the most vibrant—but in its populist varieties. And Latin America is the birthplace of “liberation theology’—which preaches that the Christian churches have a duty and a commitment to oppose social, economic and political repression.
As the Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, sharing by choice in the austere life of Argentina’s middle class. Barely a year as Pope, the 76-year-old pontiff has set a fire under the seat of his comfortable brethren.
Francis is seeking to renew the 2,000-year-old faith and reposition it strategically as the “Church of the Poor.”
He wants the institutional Church to regain its missionary drive, to be more open to everyday people—to become more involved in the lives of the global poor. And he wants the Church to evangelize on the very same streets where the poor scratch out their living.
The Church-of-the-Poor option Francis offers his brethren is a kind of religious populism appropriate to our time. Personalist religion gives folk set adrift from their ancestral villages a moral code in a world without a spiritual foundation.
Francis is trying to tilt Christianity’s center of gravity away from the bureaucratic, powerful and apparently corrupt Roman curia, and move it closer to the exuberant Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Charismatics who make up the most volatile followers of the faith in our time.
Already membership in Pentecostal and Evangelical churches exceeds 400 million worldwide. And already Charismatics make up 11% of all Catholics worldwide and 19% of Filipino Catholics.
Modernization has been just as unsettling for the poor in Christian as in Muslim societies. Most everywhere, the secular state’s failure to live up to its own ideological promises has made religious nationalism an attractive alternative to those seeking to move their peoples to action.
In the Arab world, failed modernization has generated frustration and a search for meaning that expresses itself most dramatically in religious terrorism. But in parts of West Africa, as in Metro Manila, folk celebrate wealth through a kind of “Prosperity Theology,” whose central message is that success comes through devotion and prayer. Four out of five Filipino charismatics live below the national poverty line.
Direct line to deity
In the institutional Church, God is a once-a-week presence in people’s lives. The relationship between the individual believer and the Deity is formal and indirect—mediated by a sanctified priesthood and a multitude of saints. And its central teaching is that man’s earthly sojourn is a time of trials and hardships. The oppressed and downtrodden must await their reward in the hereafter.
For Charismatics, Christianity is a religion of here-and-now—of earthly over heavenly concerns. Despite their ideological and doctrinal differences, Charismatics alike regard their relationship with God as an individual and direct connection.
The largest Philippine Catholic Charismatic mass movement, El Shaddai (“The God Almighty of Blessings”), formally defers to orthodox theology. But its “servant-leader” speaks of ordinary people’s being unable to worship spontaneously because of the “religious bondage” imposed by bureaucratic Church institutions.
Charismatic Catholicism is easy to criticize for the simplistic solutions it offers for complex existential problems. But it’s harder to shrug off its ability to empower marginal people seeking hope and a sense of purpose—to enable them to rise above their helplessness and fatalism, bolster their self-image, and help them adapt to the modern world.
A seat at the head table
The “Church of the Poor” option offers the Philippine hierarchy a future far different from the one it has come to expect. In the traditional community, the local churchman has always sat at the head table, no matter how meager the fare; and throughout the Spanish period the Church institution had been the most reliable pillar of colonial rule.
Historically, we Filipinos have practiced a comfortable kind of Catholicism—one that has adapted itself to things of this world: a self-indulgent faith of personal piety unencumbered by social responsibility.
Typically our bishops endeavor to stay above social controversies they do not regard as having grievous religious or spiritual implications. Currently an outspoken community organizer of the Metro Manila poor accuses them of being overly focused on their opposition to the Reproductive Health Law, even as they know the Church’s concerns are “much wider than those centered on sexual morality issues.”
Certainly successive populist uprisings and two agrarian rebellions in the 1900s do not seem to have shaken the CBCP’s complacency—though, as in Latin America, some of their young priests and nuns have died trying to make revolution.
Filipinos no longer pride themselves in being East Asia’s only Christian nation. Nominally, close to 80% of all of us still are Catholic; but in 2013 church attendance was down to 37% weekly, from 64% in 1991.
Among our young people, only 35% apparently still believe in one God. Much less do the poor believe their poverty to be God’s will. To the contrary, they believe God wants people to struggle to escape it. Archbishop Orlando Quevedo concedes that the growing tendency of Filipinos to favor divorce, live-in unions, and same-sex marriage indicates a “failed” evangelization.
Cry from the heart
Francis believes the Church—as the custodian of society’s values—should speak out with a stronger voice on social issues. As an earnest of his own sincerity, he made a startling apology for the Church’s collusion in the atrocities of the Iberian conquest (1493-1521) during his recent visit to South America: “Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.”
Certainly Francis ranges widely in his criticism of the world in our time. He calls the prevailing economic order “a new colonialism.” In his judgment, global capitalism has failed to create fairness, equity and decent livelihoods for the poor.
Echoing the tenets of liberation theology, Francis says, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation.” He voices the hope that a market economy founded on Christianity can provide an ethical framework for the new global economy.
This early, the new Pope’s rhetoric is rattling the papal court. But the likelihood that Francis will succeed in reforming Rome significantly is unlikely. He is part of a militant and eloquent, but small and fleeting minority in the Church institution. His outbursts of emotion during his visit home are a cry from the heart, and is not yet a program for meaningful reform.