One of Pope Francis’ main concerns in his current visit to Latin America is the rise of Protestant evangelical churches in that historically Catholic region. The Pew Research Center, a US research group known for its surveys on religion, estimates that the number of Catholics in Latin America has dropped from about 90 percent in the early 1970s to 69 percent today.
I could not find exact figures for the Philippines but I am certain there has been an exodus as well from Catholic, and even mainstream Protestant, denominations toward the evangelicals.
History and religion
The title of today’s column is a popular catch-all term used to refer to Protestant Pentecostal or charismatic churches that emphasize a renewal of one’s faith through worship sessions that invoke the Holy Spirit. I am aware that the term is controversial, but I use it here also in a figurative sense to describe the history of religion in general in the Philippines, which is marked by spurts of renewal and rebirth.
Under Spain, Filipinos’ choices in religion were limited to being either Catholic or “pagan.” Well, maybe an “either/or” formulation is not accurate because many Filipinos practiced, and still practice, a combination of Catholicism and animism, the latter a belief in the pervasiveness of spirits in nature (matanda, nuno sa punso, among others).
The US occupation of the Philippines brought freedom of religion, and in the early 20th century there was an explosion of religious options. Many mainstream Protestant denominations—Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist—were successful in converting Filipino Catholics, often around geographical lines. The Episcopalians, for example, found a foothold in the Cordilleras.
The Vatican watched, with alarm, and dispatched more Catholic religious orders, many American, to counteract the Protestant “invasion.” This is why in the last 15 years or so we have been celebrating the centennials of various Catholic schools (for example, De la Salle or St. Scholastica’s).
Dumaguete City is iconic in this regard. There you will find Silliman University, established by US Presbyterians in 1901. You will also find, in its harbor area, a replica of a ship with a group of Catholic sisters looking like sailors in nuns’ habits, surveying the horizon. These were the St. Paul sisters sent to the “rescue,” to counteract the Protestants. The St. Paul sisters today have a vast network of schools and hospitals nationwide.
The rebirth of religion in the country also came out of nationalist fervor. There was the Philippine Independent Church—often called “Aglipayan” after one of its founders, Gregorio Aglipay—which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1902. It is now affiliated with the Anglican Church but has retained a strong nationalist imprint.
Then there is Iglesia ni Cristo, not technically “Christian” because it does not see Jesus as divine. The INC just celebrated its centennial, and also carried a deep Filipino imprint.
After that burst of religious diversity in the early 20th century, we saw some stability as the churches—Catholic, Protestant, INC—each went their own way.
But in the 1960s we saw the rise of evangelical Protestant groups, spurred by a similar movement in the United States to revitalize Protestantism. Filipinos in college at that time will remember the missionary spirit of schoolmates affiliated with groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and the Student Varsity Christian Fellowship.
Catholics shrugged off the zealous students, while radical groups labeled these evangelicals as “CIA fronts” out to distract students from political causes.
Today, there are many more evangelical denominations attracting Filipinos.
The Pew survey identified eight main reasons for the appeal of evangelicals, all of which I feel would apply to Filipinos as well: seeking a personal connection with God (81 percent), enjoy style of worship (69 percent), greater emphasis on morality (60 percent), church helps members more (59 percent), outreach by new church (58 percent), personal problems (20 percent), better financial future (14 percent) and marriage to a non-Catholic (9 percent).
The outreach factor is important. These churches are found in many places, rural especially, that are not reached by the Catholic Church. The further you drive out from an urban center, the more you find of these churches, often more like chapels.
But the outreach is not so much of physical structures as the personalized touch from pastors and workers. Whether as small “house churches” (or “garage churches”) with small congregations, or the growing mega churches with thousands of people worshipping in a session, these groups provide personalized attention to both spiritual and earthly needs.
These groups, for example, have been noted for their “prosperity gospel,” encouraging members to save money and invest in business, all to glorify God. Members are provided the networks for business contacts.
But it’s not all business. The churches also provide counseling for marriage, family life and education, with something for everyone—children, young adults, the elderly.
On the spiritual side, as the Pew survey showed, people are drawn to the “style” of worship with its singing, and, in some churches, even dancing, which would be seen as almost blasphemous in mainstream Catholic worship. Not quite captured in the Pew study but of utmost importance for Filipinos is the emphasis on healing, which is tied to the style of worship. As people go into an almost-trance state, it is not surprising that they feel better, physically and emotionally, and that recovery from ailments is attributed to the Holy Spirit.
The point of morality is also interesting. There are people who see the evangelical groups as fortresses upholding traditional values in a world “ravaged” by secular values, but ironically, evangelicals also attract Catholics weary of their own church’s rigidity. I have many gay and lesbian friends who are now born again because they feel more acceptance among the evangelicals, who emphasize that only God, not a priest or a bishop, will judge.
In Latin America, evangelical groups have grown so quickly that in three countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua—Catholics now account for only half of the population. (Not coincidentally, these are among the poorest countries in the region.) In the other countries, Catholics still have a large, but diminishing, majority.
In the Philippines, Catholics—nominal or practicing—still account for about 85 percent of the population. One reason Catholics have maintained a strong majority is the “ES factor”—El Shaddai, which is (still) Catholic but has incorporated many aspects of Protestant evangelical groups. These include the song-and-dance worship style; a strong component of healing (extended into the sale of towels and oils); its personal outreach to members; and its version of the prosperity gospel, exemplified by worshippers holding up their wallets and passports to be blessed and inverting their umbrellas in a symbolic acceptance of heaven’s grace. It is not surprising that El Shaddai also finds a large following among overseas workers and their families.
The religious landscape in the Philippines is still changing, reflecting wider social transformations. Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders see these transformations as well as the need to catch up with the evangelicals to meet people’s needs, whether basic material ones or the more existential ones: the need to belong to a nurturing community, the need to make sense of an increasingly complicated and troubled world.
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