Public Lives

Which way for the Church?

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The idea of a humble Church—a Church that respects the authority of politics and of science while insisting on the autonomy of faith and morals—is one that fits the complexities of modern society. It carves out a continuing role for religion in a world that is becoming increasingly differentiated into separate functional spheres, where the meaning of life is supplied not by a single dominant center but by a plurality of angles. Understandably, it is an idea that does not sit well in societies that believe religion’s social purpose is best achieved when it is able to impose its will on every institution in society.

I think the young Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, expressed this concept very well at a press conference in Rome this year. Explaining the principal message of the recent bishops’ synod on the new evangelization, he said:  “In the message, we find a humble church, admitting that it does not understand everything that’s happening in the world. That it’s confused, that it has suffered, but it also admits its share in the wounds of society…. Humility for the Church is not a strategy; it is the way of Jesus. It is how God manifested himself to us in Jesus, and loved us in the form of Christ crucified.”

This “humble church” cannot be one that imagines itself at war with secular powers.  Neither can it be a Church that expects God to “finish the war for us,” as one bishop recently put it when Congress proceeded to pass the reproductive health bill despite the Church’s strenuous objections. For as long as the Church casts its role in combative terms, I think it is courting defiance. It will be seen as an institution that is so accustomed to wielding total influence that it treats every exercise of autonomy on the part of other institutions as an assault on its authority. But this is just my view as an observer. How the passage of the RH bill will be processed by the bishops themselves when they meet is another matter. It will be worth watching.

I think there will be at least two schools of thought.

One will see the passage of the RH bill in terms of a hostile war against the Church, declared by the state, and led by no less than the President, P-Noy. From this view, this war will be opened on many fronts, and the RH bill is just the beginning. The stance that corresponds to this perspective would be one of militant and critical engagement with the current administration. If this view prevails, it would draw the Church even more into the political arena, binding it more closely than ever to its activist past.

The other school of thought will read this RH episode as but an integral part of the wrenching transition of Philippine society to modernity. Far from being a call to war, the RH bill passage would be received as an invitation to institutional self-reflection, whose starting point is humility. Shedding an arrogance acquired from previous political victories, it sees the secular state not as an enemy but as a friendly neighbor with different concerns, and hopefully a partner in the enterprise of ending the scourge of poverty and violence. This humble Church, serene in the embrace of its faith, may lose some of its temporal privileges in this transition, but it cannot be humbled.

Which way then for the Catholic Church? It is difficult to say. The Church in the Philippines has played a major role in the evolution of the Filipino nation. Its influence survived the anticlericalism that served as one of the major impulses in the war of independence against Spain. To that extent, unlike Mexico, for example, our country did not become a fully secular society. While the modern principle of church-state separation is enshrined in all our constitutions, its enforcement has been minimalist, in deference to the dominant culture permeated by Catholicism. The Church thus never left the public square in the Philippines, where it always occupied a special position among the other institutions of society. But, now and then, it finds itself fighting a rear-guard battle against an increasingly assertive state.

In this regard, it would be useful to revisit the Church’s role in the post-Marcos years. It was the Church’s activism in the two Edsas—first in 1986 against Marcos, and then in 2001 against Estrada—that greatly boosted its political capital and inclined it toward greater encroachment into government territory. A Church like this—which was instrumental in the rise to power of two presidents, and whose intervention during moments of political crisis continues to be desperately sought—can hardly be expected to suddenly become reticent in the use of its influence, particularly in matters that bear directly on its pastoral function. That is why a militant stance will appeal to those who believe that the Church is under attack.  Only a humble Church that can find its way through this moment of disappointment without being burdened by a feeling of betrayal can avert the perils of a protracted conflict.

It is refreshing to see a president rise above his family’s personal affinities with the Church in order to help push a piece of legislation that he believes, rightly or wrongly, will be good for the country. One can imagine the kind of pressures to which he was subjected. But he, too, can do a lot to temper triumphalist noise on the RH side, and reassure resentful voices on the other side, that together depict the passage of the bill as a resounding defeat of the Church.

This is not a war of institutions, but an adjustment in the relations among autonomous spheres.

(public.lives@gmail.com)

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