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Categorized | Personal, Politics, Religion, Society

Catholicism is a Country Filipinos Can’t Leave

“The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country.” Church leaders, anti-choice groups, and many others have made this a mantra, some using it to ward off the specter of secularism, others to respect their religious roots, and most out of mere routine — they’ve just heard it and said it so many times that it feels unnatural to think otherwise.

A Country of Catholics

But is it true? It depends. What does it mean to be a predominantly Catholic country? For some, it simply means that Philippine citizens are mostly Catholic. In this sense, it is true: around 80% of Filipinos do identify as Catholic. But what that Catholic identity implies is another story.

What bishops and anti-RH individuals think it means — or would like it to mean — is that as a country of Catholics, the Philippines is led by Catholic bishops: the Philippines is their Church, and they are its pastors. This interpretation — or some version of it — is the reason organizations such as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) are still respected even by established institutions.

Unfortunately, one of those institutions is the Philippine government. Although secularism is enshrined in its Constitution, politicians pander to the Church out of the belief that bishops are also representatives of their Catholic constituents: Pandering is the respect paid by one representative to another.

This pandering is most apparent during elections, when candidates cower in fear of the Catholic Vote. Although many have shown that it is a myth, it is true in the way that matters: politicians behave as if it were real, and the bishops get what they want: politicians who perpetuate their version of a Catholic country.

But again, the Catholic Vote is in fact a myth. Catholics generally do not vote in block, and if past elections are any indication, nor do they obey bishops when it comes to voting. This is because most Filipino Catholics are cafeteria Catholics.

Cafeteria Catholics

Also referred to as eclectic Catholics, cafeteria Catholics choose what they believe independently from Church constraints, in the same way that a cafeteria customer would order food from different stalls instead of buying everything from a single one. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t believe something that is at odds with the Church, and even those who seem orthodox or traditional (the katoliko sarado) would reveal after some conversation that their views are not completely consistent with the Vatican’s.

Filipinos tend to hold beliefs inconsistent with Catechism — karma, reincarnation, feng shui, astrology, the Secret — and this attitude extends beyond religion into politics. The most salient example is the RH Bill, supported by 70-80% of Filipinos. The percentage is even higher if we consider Catholics alone.

The Philippines as a country obedient to bishops does not exist. It would be more correct to say that the Philippines is a cafeteria Catholic country.

The Church is a Country

Despite their differences with the bishops, cafeteria Catholics, especially the most progressive ones, can’t seem to leave the Church. I believe it’s because of different views of what the Catholic Church is.

One view is that the Church is an organization for people who share the same convictions. When your convictions change, you leave the organization. This is the implicit understanding of pro- and anti-RH groups: when you start supporting the other side, you leave. Obviously, this is not how Filipinos see the Catholic Church. If it were, there would be little to no Catholic Church to speak of.

Instead, many Filipinos see the Church as the country they’re born into, and Catholicism is their nationality. Most people — not only Filipinos — do not leave the country of their birth, and most — again, not only Filipinos — do not change the religion they’re born with. Once a Filipino, always a Filipino; once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Citizens criticize public officials, Catholics criticize their bishops, but rarely is leaving, let alone changing their national or religious identity, a valid option.

Yes, it takes more money and resources to emigrate. But even if leaving religion shouldn’t cost you a Peso, it can be just as difficult, if not more. By the time the average Filipino Catholic feels disappointed enough at their Church to leave it, they’ve already invested so much — mental energy spent on stress and sacrifice, time spent on Sundays and sacraments, and for even the poorest of the poor, money spent on tithing and other religious obligations.

Rooted in Catholicism

It’s not so much that the Philippines has Catholic roots — we are as much a Pagan country if heritage is the criteria. Filipinos just routinely root themselves in Catholicism so thoroughly that uprooting seems too painful a process.

So for many Filipinos, leaving the Church is unimaginable — on one hand, because it’s so unusual that many can’t imagine it; on the other, leaving has so many negative consequences that many don’t even want to imagine it. This is especially true for those who have nightmares of being tortured by Satan for all eternity — leaving the Church is a sin worthy of automatic excommunication, which is practically a one-way ticket to Hell.

I don’t have the numbers, but I’d wager that more Filipinos have changed countries than religious identities. (In case you do, please leave a link in the comments section.) Of course there are those who do leave Catholicism, but as with emigrating, it’s usually to a place that’s not too far away: a different Christian denomination, another Judeo-Christian religion, or a spirituality that’s thematically consistent with Catholicism.

And in most (if not all) cases, what the Catholic bishops think is not a consideration. Does anyone consider their Congressman or President when they make a decision about emigrating? They do, however, consider the culture — traditions, laws, economic and political structure — of their future country, and this brings us back to our main point: Filipino Catholics treat their Catholicism as a country they’ve grown used to, a nationality they’re born with — not as an obligation to, or even a membership in an institution.

A Secularizing Country

With all this in mind, calling the Philippines a Catholic country seems to be as trivial as saying that the Philippines is a tropical country. Filipinos have no more choice in their religious identity than our 7,107 islands do their distance from the equator. Politicians should recognize that the bishops claiming to dictate Catholic behavior is just as senseless as cartographers claiming to move the islands. They might have all the maps, but the islands are moved by a more powerful force.

When it comes to Filipino attitude toward religion, this force seems to be secularization, which sociologist see as part of an ever bigger movement toward modernization. Catholics are starting to see the value of religion less in divine commandments and heavenly promises, and more in human needs and real-world benefits.

It is a slow yet steady process, and sociologists have found it as inevitable as the drifting of the islands. But as with any movement toward progress, the Catholic bishops will try to stop it, doing everything in their power to remain representatives of their constituents, repeating, like a mantra, “The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country.”

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.