First word

WHILE the world’s attention was riveted on Pope Francis and IS (strangely, the names rhyme), Protestantism marked on October 31,2017,the 500th anniversary (quincentenary) of the start of the Reformation, which Martin Luther initiated with his 95 theses against the Catholic Church and which then began the founding of the Protestant churches.

It is an event which the Philippines, with its predominant Catholic population and influential Catholic church, has barely noticed. But there are compelling reasons why this time Catholics should contemplate more than just themselves.

The axis of religious affiliation and demography today is shifting. New forces are on the rise. Traditional bastions of religious authority are on the wane. Ordinary people have a greater voice in the churches than they used to.

A time of great change and discovery

The genesis of the reformation and its historical development are helpful for comprehending the whys and wherefores of what is happening in the world of religion today.

It may surprise some readers why I am directing attention to the Reformation. This does not mean that I am a lapsed Catholic or a turncoat. This simply flows from my work as a writer and journalist, for my chief interest is not cheerleading, but truth-telling and understanding our lives and the world we live in, whether the subject is politics or religion or whatever.

I found it more than a coincidence that Luther’s epic dissent from religious orthodoxy occurred in the same period, when Europe explored the oceans in search of new worlds to conquer, when the printing press was invented, and when the Renaissance came to full flower.

The Reformation is usually dated to October 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Saxony, when Luther sent his “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the Archbishop of Mainz. The theses debated and criticized the Church and the papacy, but concentrated on the selling of indulgences and doctrinal policies about purgatory, particular judgment, and the authority of the pope.

Although there were significant earlier attempts to reform the Catholic Church before Luther, he is widely credited by historians as having started the Reformation. The Protestant position incorporated doctrinal changes such as a complete reliance on Scripture as a source of proper belief and the belief that faith in Jesus, and not good works, is the only way to obtain salvation.

The spread of Gutenberg’s printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular.

The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent. Much work in battling Protestantism was done by the well-organized new order of the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus.

Fastest growing in the developing world

In its issue last week (November 12,2017), the Economist featured an incisive article on the Reformation, and a leader (editorial) on the striking paradox that, as Protestantism has seen much decline in the West, the faith (at least one branch of it) is the fastest growing in the developing world today.

Protestantism continues to change lives in contemporary times. Indeed, over the recent decades the number of its adherents has grown substantially. Since the 1970s, more than 40 percent of Guatemala’s population is now Protestant. Its story is a microcosm of a broader “Protestant awakening” across Latin America and the developing world.

According to the Pew Research Center, Protestants currently make up slightly less than 40 percent of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians; almost all the rest are Roman Catholics. The United States is home to some 150million Protestants, the largest number in any country.

The Economist explained that Protestantism has played a large part in the development of the modern, liberal world. It has contributed to the emergence of concepts such as freedom of conscience, tolerance and the separation of powers.

As the world marked this year the Reformation quincentenary, the percentage of Western Europeans and North Americans professing Protestantism is declining, whereas in the developing world the proportion is growing fast.

For much of the 20th century, global secularization was considered inevitable as nations modernized.

Today, however, the developing world is actually becoming more religious. It is part of what the sociologist Peter Berger calls the “desecularization” of the world. Some key parts of the world are turning to religion more.

At the heart of this religious resurgence are Islam and Pentecostalism, a branch of Protestant Christianity. Islam grew at an annual average of 1.9 percent between 2000 and 2017, mainly as the result of a high birth rate. Pentecostalism grew at 2.2 percent each year, mainly by conversion. Half of developing-world Christians are Pentecostal, evangelical or charismatic (all branches of the faith emphasize the authority of the Bible and the need for a spiritual rebirth). Why are people so attracted to it?

The movement spread across America and on to the developing world. In Africa, Latin America and Asia, the growth of the faith has coincided with large-scale economic reform and urban migration. The teaching that all people are made in the image of God helps give dignity to the downtrodden. It is a boot-strapping, forward-looking faith and its cultural malleability, with no requirement for clergy, has made it suitable to populations on the move, seeking new social identities and communities.

A very modern faith

Berger calls evangelicalism (under which he included Pentecostalism) a very modern faith, with an act of personal decision at the core of its piety. In the developing world it is associated with Western modernity. Preachers in Guatemalan megachurches and teachers in Chinese universities talk about Max Weber, a 19th-century German sociologist. He described the virtues of a “Protestant work ethic” that drives people to work hard and live frugally, and so helps drive the economy. Though the faith’s impact is less profound economically in today’s globalized world than in early modern Europe, Pentecostalism is bringing change to poor societies.

One result has been an explosion of the faith. Protestants have grown from 15 percent of the population of Africa in 1970 (some 54 million people) to 29 percent today (more than 340 million). In Latin America, they have gone from 8 percent (23 million) to 19 percent (121 million) over the same period. Some countries, such as Guatemala and Honduras are now over 40 percent Protestant. More than 80 million Chinese have become Protestants in the past 40 years. The big question is whether the millions of individual transformations resulting from Pentecostal conversion can be translated into a deeper societal transformation.

How is Catholicism responding?

It should follow that in this time of religious resurgence in the developing world, Philippine Catholicism should also be surging in numbers along with the evangelicals and Islam.

There are no figures on conversions to Catholicism in the country. There is only the presumption that because there are many Filipino Catholics to begin with, the Catholic population will automatically grow.

Serious Catholics worry that the Philippine church today is warped in time—fixated on its alleged success at EDSA and obsessed with reliving old glories.

The church looks more tired than inspired today. It deludes itself with prayer rallies and bell-ringing that lead nowhere. It seems trapped in a hopeless alliance with the discredited yellow cult and obsolescent Liberal Party. Its confusion shows in the way some Catholic leaders repeatedly talk about getting Cory Aquino canonized as a Catholic saint.

The Philippine Statistics Authority reported in October 2015 that 80.58 percent of the total Filipino population were Roman Catholics, 10.8 percent were Protestant and 5.57 percent were Islamic. In 2000, according to the “World Values Survey,” 1.8 percent were Protestant Christians. Other Christian denominations include the Iglesia ni Cristo (one of a number of separate Churches of Christ generally not affiliated with one another),

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that Pentecostal Protestantism is making major inroads in the country, while the mainstream Protestant churches remain active.

Already, the Protestants have elected the first Protestant president of the Philippines – Fidel V. Ramos (1992-1998)—which was once thought unthinkable.

Catholics can console themselves with the thought that a new Filipino president will likely be Catholic, because there are so many more Catholics in the country. True believers and reformers like Martin Luther do not think that way. They think of creating new worlds.

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