"When you’re a Catholic supporter of the President, how do you reconcile what you hear with what you believe?"
“The Church is two hundred years out of date.” So said, not President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, but the late Archbishop of Milan and Jesuit theologian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in a final interview just before his death. Once favored as a papal contender, Cardinal Martini was a prominent voice in the Catholic Church especially among Catholic progressives. Giving a cutting description of a Church that failed to move with the times, in the same interview, he lamented the fact that “our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up.”
Clearly for Cardinal Martini, the only way forward was for “the Church [to] admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops.” Then came the painful admission, “The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.”
It is not always easy to criticize a person, or an institution that one loves dearly. That is why, as a Catholic who supports the President, it was painful for me to hear him lambast the Church at the recently held 1st National Assembly of the Liga ng mga Barangay sa Pilipinas in Pasay City.
In 25 years, the President said, the Catholic Church will be no more.
It is a familiar Duterte rhetoric, one that he has repeated on countless occasions. He has criticized the Church and her bishops, for the failings of her clergy and their supposed “meddling” in politics. He once mentioned being allegedly abused as a student in a Catholic school, and under his watch, sedition charges were filed against bishops and priests perceived to be siding with the opposition. In a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic, such tirades against the Church by political leaders were once unheard of. That is—until Duterte came along.
Ever since our country was conquered by the Spanish, using the cross and the sword, Filipinos have always a constant love-hate relationship with the institutional Church. Despite being deeply religious and socially deferent, Filipinos were often wary of the social power structure that placed the Church at its apex. The Philippine Revolution at the turn of nineteenth century was, in fact, ignited by the so-called abuses of the Spanish friars, notwithstanding the fact that throughout the 300 years of Spanish rule, the same friars served as our nation’s first educators, scientists and engineers. The Aglipayan schism which led to the creation of a separate Filipino church, stemmed demands that the Vatican appoint Filipinos to replace the Spanish bishops. Even in recent years, bishops and priests find themselves at odds with the political establishment, as they did during the EDSA Revolution, and the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada.
But despite these, the people’s faith in the Catholic Church has not diminished, and has remained fervent, as evidenced by the crowds of millions that welcomed Saint Pope John Paul II in 1995, and recently, Pope Francis in 2015.
Thus, it is not surprising, to say the least, for the Filipino people to support Duterte, yet remain unshakenly Catholic.
While when circumstances call for it, the Church must be morally indignant, it must also learn to listen and learn from this paradox.
In many countries abroad, migrant Filipino Catholics have breathed new life to dying Catholic congregations. They bring with them, not only their attachment to the Church’s teachings and worship, but also the warmth, spontaneity and joy of Filipino Christianity—as opposed to the formality and rigidity of Western church life. This has resulted in a new form of Christian witness, that despite the difficult demands and moral complexities of modern life, especially among Filipino migrant workers, faith has and will always retain its enduring value.
It must be one of the reasons why Pope Francis has selected a Filipino to take charge of the Church’s evangelization’s efforts.
At home, however, the Church is criticized by its very own president.
The obvious tendency is to aversely react to his statement, and cry blasphemy—as the political opposition has already done.
But come to think of it—while President Duterte has criticized the Church, often in sad and vulgar language, however, he has not, notwithstanding allegations of extrajudicial killings, taken any act or adopted any official policy that is diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Church. In fact, he has even signed the law declaring the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the principal patroness of the Philippines, a special non-working holiday.
On the other hand, the previous administration, despite President Benigno Aquino being surrounded by clergy supporters, forced Congress to approve the controversial Reproductive Health Act, which among others, promoted artificial contraception, in blatant disregard for official Church teaching. Ironically, these very same critics of the current administration and deride the alleged extrajudicial killings were among the loudest promoters of so-called “culture of death” that Saint Pope John Paul II so strongly condemned.
When President Duterte said that the Catholic Church would “disappear” in 25 years, my initial impulse was to say—he is wrong.
But not according to Pope Francis. In his Christmas message last year, the pope himself gave a very stern warning, “Today we are no longer the only ones that produce culture, no longer the first nor the most listened to.” He asks us to avoid “rigidity that is born from fear of change and ends up disseminating stakes and obstacles in the ground of the common good, turning it into a minefield of misunderstanding and hatred.”
Disseminating stakes and obstacles in the ground of the common good that leads to misunderstanding and hatred. That is exactly what happens with a politics that divides rather than one that unites. The worse even happens, when politics drags religion into its own sphere.
One cannot be emphatic enough, there is no justification enough for anyone, including the President, to use derisive language against the Church. But then again, the President is the better judge of his own statements.
On the other hand, one must be careful to listen to what one can learn from this unhappy situation. Cardinal Martini, in the same final interview, clarifies, “The word of God is simple, and it seeks a heart that listens. Neither the clergy nor church law can replace man’s internal judgment. All the external rules, laws and dogmas are given to us to clarify our internal voice and our discernment of the Spirit.”
These days, admittedly, Catholics are often torn on how they can remain good Catholics and at the same time support the President. The Church and the clergy, however, cannot simply replace the value of an individual Catholic’s prudent and informed judgment about how to apply moral principles to concrete political situations. It is good to be reminded, that as Catholics, while we have the foremost duty to listen to what the Church authentically teaches and to rightfully inform our own conscience, we also have an equal responsibility act according to what we think will best bring about a just society, including our own political choices.
The challenge therefore is for Catholics—not to be silent or cowed in the face of criticism or opposition—but more importantly to provide a more authentic Christian witness in public life. This means finding a common ground that serves the welfare of the people. It means a consistent radicalism to bring the Gospel into the secular realm, not only when it is expedient or convenient to one’s political aims. It means being open to dialogue, despite and in spite of the differences in opinion, mindset or ideology—knowing that there is no other higher ideal than that of charity.
“The Church is two hundred years out of date. Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?”—Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.