Too late for a ‘Church of the Poor’?
AT THE 1991 Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II), the Catholic Church opted wholeheartedly to be the first national church in the world to become a Church of the Poor. Ten years later, the Church had to admit that its effort had failed. Teodoro Bacani, bishop emeritus of Novaliches, wrote a few years later that the Church had thus missed its historic destiny.
This commentary uses the writings of Bishop Bacani (especially an article titled “Church of the Poor: The Church in the Philippines’ Reception of Vatican II” that appeared on the East Asian Pastoral Institute website in 2005). Through these works, we looked more deeply into the Church’s 1991 decision and its subsequent failure to carry through and become the Church of the Poor. Did the delegates of PCP II have a limited understanding of the concept “Church of the Poor”? Has the Philippines suffered in any way because of the Church’s failure back then? Will we have another chance to become a Church of the Poor? Finally, is becoming a Church of the Poor an essential, sine qua non requisite for the formation of a just, democratic, compassionate and prosperous country for all peoples of all religions?
After Vatican Council II, Bishop Bacani pointed out, concern for the poor and poverty moved from Rome to Latin America, to Medellin in 1968 where Blessed Paul VI was present, and to Puebla in 1978 with Saint John Paul II presiding. The Theology of Liberation flowered in Latin America. The phrase “Church of the Poor” used by Saint John XXIII on the eve of Vatican II became a reality in much of the continent.
Meanwhile there was martial law in the Philippines. Thousands of young people, for Christian or ideological reasons or both, devoted their lives to national liberation. People here were deeply influenced by literature on the Church of the Poor that came from Latin America.
No one was truly surprised, therefore, when PCP II announced in its final message: “As we approach the year 2000, Christ bids this community—the laity, religious and clergy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines—to be a Church of the Poor.”
Ten years later the delegates, as we mentioned above, returned to Manila and agreed the Church had largely failed in its efforts to be such a Church.
We wish to have answers, even limited ones, to the questions raised above. Did the delegates to PCP II have in mind a Church of the Poor different from the one understood in Latin America in those days and from Pope Francis’ Church of the Poor? It seems so. The delegates saw the Church of the Poor primarily as a place where rich and poor Catholics could meet, pray together, get to know each other and help each other. Bishop Bacani selected the following quotes from the documents of PCP II.
When the Church in the Philippines becomes truly the Church of the Poor, the poor will feel at home in her, and will participate actively, as equal to others, in her life and mission, a sign and instrument for the unity of the whole Filipino nation.
The Church of the Poor will practice solidarity with the poor. “It will collaborate with the poor themselves and with others to lift up the poor from their poverty.”
We do not see in the selections any hint of Pope Francis’ passion, any hint that the gangrene of corruption has attacked our whole civilization, or any hint of the Theology of Liberation. Maybe the Church of the Poor can only take root in a society that knows it is rotten with corruption and greed. The Philippines in 1991-2001 was at peace. The economy was improving.
Did the delegates believe that the problems existing between rich and poor would disappear if Catholics knew each other and cared for one another? Pope Francis sees people’s organizations solving their problems through confrontation with the powerful, with the help of their committed allies, including rich people.
The PCP II had an excellent assembly of lay leaders, but it was still a formal hierarchic effort. Maybe the forming of a Church of the Poor only happens where priests and bishops run head-on into suffering and into determined poor people in moments of violence. Such a church grows incrementally. Think of Blessed Oscar Romero, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande and the peasants of El Salvador.
Could things have been different if the delegates and the whole Church had achieved what they promised? They would have come at least part of the way to being the Church of the Poor. As a result there would be less suffering among the poor. Much would remain to be done, as Pope Francis points out in his encyclicals. Maybe the violence done to the poor must reach deeper into the Church, to its priests and bishops.
Will the Philippine Church have another chance to become the Church of the Poor? Isn’t that what the Pope is doing, that is, inviting us in his struggle for justice, dignity and compassion?
Historically the Church has looked to the powerful to make the changes needed in society. After Vatican II and the development of the Church of the Poor concept in Latin America, it is clear the poor themselves must play the main role in bringing about change. Pope Francis said to the leaders of popular movements in Bolivia last July 10: “You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged can do and are doing a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”
To many working with the poor, the country will not see solutions to its economic and social problems until that liberating work is supported by a Church of the Poor.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).