Coupling faith and morals
As has been publicly noted, all sectors of Philippine society deserve the warmest congratulations for the success of Pope Francis’ historic visit. It’s now time to reflect on his sermons, following the admonition of the bishops.
Apart from the overriding theme of “mercy and compassion,” among the key words often uttered by the Holy Father were faith, religiosity, corruption, inequality and poverty. Taking the first two words on the one hand and the latter three on the other tells us that they cannot or should not coexist in our country as they are patently inconsistent. Putting it differently, how can a society be so religiously faithful yet so corrupt, resulting in so much poverty and inequality? Corollarily, as the Pope wishes, how can Filipinos be credible and effective Christian missionaries in the rest of Asia?
The Inquirer editorial titled “Devout and dishonest” (1/17/15)—which may have been missed by many due to the frenzy that overcame those four days—put it succinctly and merits revisiting. To excerpt: “How to explain the cognitive dissonance, except to point out that, when it comes to overt religiosity and true moral behavior in this country, it’s not just Napoles who appears to have learned to be one and the other at the same time—to compartmentalize one’s life, in effect, so that the strictures of one aspect do not necessarily intrude on the other? It’s easy to scoff at the woman’s display of piety as a transparent bid for the easing of public opprobrium against her, but it’s also entirely possible—and this is the scary part—that she is deep-down sincere in her belief that God and the Church remain by her side. According to the whistle-blowers, Napoles spent considerable amounts making donations to the Church, engaging in acts of charity, and even housing a number of her close priest-friends in cozy quarters in an upscale part of the metropolis. All these, while she was supposedly engaged in the wholesale thievery of the people’s money.”
In this context, recall, too, the so-called “Pajero bishops” of the previous regime. It seems a common belief that by donating to the Church or maintaining close relations with certain members of the hierarchy, one can obtain divine pardon and expiate one’s sins.
The foregoing merely illustrates the uncoupling of faith and morals, or religious faith not driving secular behavior. It is possible that such a disconnect has been encouraged, wittingly or unwittingly, by Church leaders who tend to put inordinate importance on ceremonies or rituals vis-à-vis secular morality. This appears to start as early as in grade school catechism. An offshoot of “ritualistic religiosity” is hypocrisy, which appears commonplace in our society, not least among political and religious leaders and other prominent persons—the supposed role models for the rest of the citizenry.
A consequence is dysfunctional institutions that underlie our country’s economic and social ills. This is true of our overarching institutions, church and state, constitutionally separate but with interests and acts that often intersect. Many citizens have turned cynical of the government while a number of Catholics, especially among the youth, have become disillusioned about and alienated from the Church. Deep reforms in both institutions are called for if these developments are to be reversed, as well as enable the country to move to a path of sustained economic progress and social inclusion.
Although the elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy less than two years ago was generally unexpected, his pronouncements and acts as Pope Francis were welcomed by most Catholics like a breath of fresh air long overdue. His emphases on mercy and compassion, social justice, humility, kindness and understanding, and proclivity toward interfaith rapport, not to mention the reform of the Curia, have made alienated Catholics here and elsewhere gravitate back to the fold.
Pope Francis spoke about the importance of renewing and deepening our faith. But it wasn’t clear how this is to be done as he did observe and remark in another breath that Filipinos are deeply religious and devout Christians who should be missionaries in Asia. He appeared to stop short of explicitly articulating the need to make faith drive moral conduct, and that the two are mutually reinforcing. Perhaps because he felt the nexus is natural, he missed saying that the gap between faith and morals is at the root of our country’s malaise characterized by corruption, inequality and poverty.
In other words, faith—overtly manifested by prayers, devotions and rituals—can be superficial (nay, vacuous) if detached from moral behavior. I haven’t heard our bishops stress this point in any of their early or recent statements, nor the priest-commentators on TV and radio covering the papal visit.
An advocate of integrating faith into secular morality is a lay society formed nearly five years ago. Named after St. Arnold Janssen, the founder of the Society of the Divine Word, the vision and mission of the Lay Society of St. Arnold Janssen (LSSAJ) can be summed up by its slogan: “Faith Transforming Life.”
Without a doubt, Pope Francis’ visit has made a profound impact. Still and all, the Francis effect might have been even more powerful and transformative if in his homily at Luneta, if not in Malacañang, he highlighted our society’s imperative to couple faith and morals. Indeed, it might have become more enduring by adding that if such a critical link continues to be lacking, his visit would have been for naught, y voy a llorar!
Ernesto M. Pernia ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of economics at the University of the Philippines, former lead economist at the Asian Development Bank, and member of the LSSAJ.
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