There’s the Rub

Not so faithful

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Fr. Robert Reyes and Msgr. Sabino Vengco offer several explanations. That’s for the SWS survey that says the Filipino Catholic faithful are increasingly becoming less faithful. Only 37 percent now go to Mass compared to 64 percent in 1991. And 9.2 percent now even contemplate leaving the fold completely.

“Liturgies are bland and boring,” says Reyes. Just as well, the practice of many churches of taking “second collections” during Mass is putting off churchgoers. It makes the Church look excessively materialistic. And still the sex scandals that have rocked the Church generally are straining belief.

The flock didn’t just suddenly dwindle, says Vengco, it’s been dwindling over the years. He agrees with Reyes that boring sermons by priests are among the reasons less Filipinos attend Mass. But there’s a deeper one. That is that the faith hasn’t really lodged deeply in the Filipino psyche. “We’ve been nominal Catholics since the Spanish period. It is never a case of conversion but rather political accommodation. There is not enough depth in our faith. We are satisfied with what is superficial.”

I don’t know about the boring sermons, but I do know about the irritating ones. That is courtesy of friends who have told me that they have made it a point to at least avoid certain priests, if not Mass entirely, in recent years. That’s because those priests have made it a point to press their opposition to RH doggedly and stridently during Mass before a captive audience.

Someone told me she got so fed up with it that at one point, soon after the priest opened his mouth to say “RH,” she stood up and walked out. Which became conspicuous not just because she was occupying one of the front pews but because several others did the same thing. Which, however, did not dissuade the priest from prosecuting his cause, he became even more animated, or agitated, in his expostulations against RH.

I share completely Vengco’s view that the Filipino’s faith is steeped in superficiality. I’ve railed against it myself, it’s a version of Catholicism that relies more on form than on substance, on image than on internalization, on ritual than on essence. Which is the Church’s fault: Spanish rule rested it on the indio’s unquestioning obedience of Church injunctions and political accommodation of colonial rule. It’s easy enough to sympathize with Rizal’s fulminations against the corruption and obscurantism of the friars. You’ve got a faith that says you can be cruel and oppressive, greedy and lecherous, vile and murderous but secure a berth in heaven anyway by donating lands to the Church, it won’t claim the undying loyalty of the victims.

The caveat of course, as SWS itself adds, is that the survey was taken only shortly after Pope Francis replaced Benedict. Too early for him to have an impact on Filipino Catholics—as indeed too early for Chito Tagle, who became archbishop of Manila and a cardinal in fairly quick succession, to have an impact on them. I suspect though that they will do so in the long run. The priests and bishops who fought martial law and took a propoor stance did have that impact on this country an eternity ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Latin America has the most Catholics today and that its politics have a strongly propoor bent, the kind that alarms Washington about Pope Francis.

But the prognosis is not all that rosy. My own take about Catholicism’s decline in fortune in these parts is that, quite apart from Gloria Arroyo’s epic success in corrupting the bishops over the last decade—she had a phenomenal talent in that respect—technology is taking its toll.

In the early or mid-1990s, I heard someone tell me the story that the number of seminarians from Catanduanes, the one province that supplied them in plentiful quantities, suddenly fell steeply. The religious authorities couldn’t explain it until someone suggested cable TV. The drop in the number of youth entering the seminary coincided with the introduction of cable TV in the province. The youth suddenly just had too many earthly distractions to devote themselves to unearthly pursuits.

Mere coincidence? Maybe. But the explanation is not without merit. By the same token, I’d venture to say that the steady decline of Catholicism in this country, particularly the one of the last decade, probably owes to the impact of the digital revolution. Specifically the Internet, specifically the social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. Infinitely more than cable TV, it’s the Internet that has made Filipinos acutely aware of the world. Hell, it’s the Internet that has pried the country open like an oyster. Carlos Celdran and his group have a point when they say Filipino Catholics have now become more enlightened and will no longer accept doctrine blindly, they want reason to go with it. What has made that so is, in great part, the Internet.

In the long term, I don’t think Catholicism’s stiffest competition in these parts will come from the other faiths or from the charismatics and other Christian denominations. It will come from secularism. At least as far as the urban, middle-class, reasonably educated, Facebook-using sector goes. But which will probably determine the direction of change. The days when the Church can just compel the faithful to obey it like a cacique are going, if they have not gone already. The local Church refuses to change, or continues to resist the thinking represented by Pope Francis and Cardinal Tagle, and it will truly see an exodus of Filipinos from it not unlike that of the OFWs from the country. It might not even be a matter of active choice, it might just be Catholics drifting away.

At least the OFWs come home. The ex-faithful might very well be permanent exiles.

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