Has Catholicism become a hindrance to secular morality?
Why does the Philippines, for so long the only Catholic country in Asia, rank near the bottom in terms of corruption, poverty incidence, investment climate and other standard international socioeconomic metrics? Is there a direct connection between our country’s Catholicism and its persistent social malaise? Has religion become a cover for immoral, let alone illegal, practices? When people spontaneously credit God for good outcomes (Nagpapasalamat ako sa Panginoon), do they also always expect Him to forgive them for bad behavior? Has Philippine-style Catholicism spawned a moral hazard problem in society?
The disconnect between faith and life has been a common impression of many local and international observers. For instance, it’s not an uncommon practice of many to walk on bended knees from the Quiapo church entrance to the altar, then bribe the police to avoid a traffic ticket right outside the church. Or to regularly attend Sunday Mass and receive communion, then cheat on taxes without any sense of contradiction; or to regularly pray the holy rosary and just as regularly cheat one’s fellowman in business transactions. These are examples of acts injurious to society or fellowmen (“social sins”), leaving out “personal sins” which are more a matter between an individual and his/her God.
In many countries that appreciably rank better than the Philippines, the basis for righteous living is plain human values—civic duty, respect for others’ rights, fair play, concern for the common good, heroism and observance of the rule of law. With the world becoming increasingly secular—as evidenced by emptying churches, synagogues and temples—human values seem to be the anchor of righteous living. Are we to admit that human values are a stronger driver for righteous conduct than religion? Should this age-old Catholic country in Asia not have exemplary righteous citizens guided by spiritual values as given in the Ten Commandments?
Or has Philippine-brand of Catholicism not only lost its spiritual moorings but, worse, undermined human values? One might even say: Has the Catholic God gotten in the way of righteous living in our country?
The foregoing observations and questions have motivated the formation of the Lay Society of St. Arnold Janssen (LSSAJ). Briefly, LSSAJ is an organization founded by former seminarians of an international religious congregation—the Society of the Divine Word (SVD)—who have bonded together to try to pay back society for the moral formation they received from seminary training. LSSAJ believes that the root cause of the country’s social ills of poverty, corruption, social injustice and environmental degradation, among others, is the disconnect of faith from daily life. Faith as commonly practiced appears to have become a mere collection of devotions and rites to front for immoral behavior rather than as the foundation of righteousness.
St. Arnold Janssen was the founder of the SVD as well as the Holy Spirit sisters (“blue sisters”) and the Holy Spirit sisters in perpetual adoration (“pink sisters”). He was a man of religion and of science (a mathematician). His unique legacy is the marrying of religion and science. He had wanted to form an organization of the laity to complete his “army” for the Word of God, but he died before he could realize this plan. Was it in God’s plans that the lay society be founded first in the Philippines on the occasion of the centennial of the SVD in this country in August 2009 and during the tenure of the ninth successor to the founder, the first Asian-Filipino superior general?
LSSAJ is an inclusive society whose vision is to reconnect faith with secular life. Its approach is two-pronged: a bottom-up approach of influencing people to conduct their daily lives according to their spiritual values, and a top-down approach of undertaking social reform projects to help reduce poverty, improve governance, promote social justice, and protect the environment. In pursuit of the former, LSSAJ holds Faith Transforming Life sessions to bring individuals together to learn from and support each other in striving to live according to the true Christian values. It envisions to reach all 100 million Filipinos.
In pursuit of the latter approach, LSSAJ is undertaking livelihood projects for the indigenous peoples of Cagayan province, the marginalized population in La Union, and poor families in Tondo by combining economic assistance with spiritual formation in partnership with the SVD itself. The aim is total human development—body and soul—grounded in the incarnation of Christ-God becoming man.
It is easy to join LSSAJ. One simply lives his/her Christian faith and, better still, influences others to do the same—and one becomes part of the “LSSAJ movement.” She/he is welcome to join any of the society’s meetings to share her/his thoughts and experience.
Further, one could be actively involved in the “LSSAJ organization,” sharing one’s talent, time and treasure with the less fortunate in our country. Which dovetails with Pope Francis’ admonition during his recent visit—“without concern for the poor and marginalized, we would miss the Bible’s message.”
Joseph M. Pernia is a founding member and former chair of LSSAJ, and former director for finance and private sector development in South Asia at the World Bank.
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