Liberalism, Faith and Religious Pluralism

Now that the 2019 Philippine election’s fever has died down, major dailies are now pre-occupied with other things like the boat ramming incident near Recto Reef involving Chinese and Filipino boats. The president has waded in keeping the issue alive by another news cycle. Meanwhile, there are little whispers now that federalism will no longer be pursued by the president. That would be a shame, if true.

The American concept of democracy that Filipinos idolize is based on federalism and the separation of powers. These are liberal ideas meant to disperse power unto the federated states. More profoundly, American democracy espouses strongmindedness and independence of thought. Why liberals particularly those in Bicol are adherents to the current form that centralizes power in Manila, more specifically with the president, baffles me. Yes, there are two other co-equal branches and several independent agencies on paper, but in practice, these branches and independent agencies are not so independent as long as the president has the appointing power and the administrative control of the archipelago.

Philippine demographics shows that the country is mostly Catholics but it is the smaller religious denominations that often wade in Philippine elections. The Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) vote is often bragged about every election and in close contests could truly spell the difference. Kingdom of Jesus Christ founded by tele-evangelist Pastor Apollo Quiboloy provided resources including use of a private jet to Rodrigo Duterte during the 2016 presidential election. Another tele-evangelist Brother Eddie Villanueva’s Jesus is Lord Church throws its endorsement particularly during presidential elections albeit with marginal impact.

Clearly, these evangelicals see the value of their interests being represented through appointments of one of their own, or their sect being advocated in government in different ways. The Catholic Church, however, does things differently and do not encourage block voting lest be accused of breaching the state/church divide. Instead, it fiscalizes the government, advocates for or attempts to block a particular policy or bill through the pulpit, Radio Veritas, or through circulars and public releases. Essentially, the Church educates the Catholic voters and allow them to exercise their free will.

This approach is not helpful during elections, not to mention, an irritant to the sitting president. Duterte understands the Catholic Church’s lack of political clout and therefore uses it to his advantage. Unafraid of political backlash, Duterte attacks the Church, curses the pope, and takes it to the extreme by his daring public display of vulgarity. The evangelicals do not seem to mind it and shrugs off Duterte’s tantrums.

The Catholic Church’s concept of the inviolable separation between the state and the church is too literal and is often misunderstood. One would think that since legislators are predominantly Catholics that governmental policies would mirror that bent but they too can exercise their free will (i.e. the TRAIN Law).

The clergy stay clear of politics but would use the pulpit to criticize government failings. Duterte signed into law various liberal ideas like universal healthcare, extending maternity leave, free college education, land to the landless, among others without much fanfare. Bishops could have shown some comity but didn’t. Only when a legislation impacts a church dogma (i.e. abortion, gay marriage, divorce, etc.) that the bishops would kick it in high gear. Thus the current state of play between the president and the bishops is one of political warfare. Bishops criticize the extra judicial killings and war on drugs and the president fights back by demeaning the Catholic Church and the clergy.

Such relationship is broken and is not good for the people. There is an obvious disconnect between the two protagonists. For example, Duterte has appointed Grace Princesa, a Catholic Bicolana widow from Ligao, Albay as ambassador to the Holy See. Her appointment was hailed by the bishops but it seems that that is where the agreement ends. Somehow, the bishops do not see the value of negotiation through the ambassador, an experienced diplomat, with the Duterte government.

Such reluctance is reflected by majority of voters who repudiated Church “supported” opposition candidates in the recent elections, once again belying the existence of a Catholic vote. Frankly, the Catholic Church can play a bigger role in politics through the catechism of the Church.

Philippine Catholicism seems to have embraced the idea that religious pluralism in a cultural context, is something that is willed by God and that faith is conceived primarily as a religious experience of God with little determinate content, as if beliefs were generated primarily through ecumenism in the context of inculturation. Inter-faith dialogue is important but faith must remain true to the Catholic mission of inculturation – that is immersing to a culture and integrating the good and true in it, to Catholicism. Ultimately, the goal is to bring thoughts captive to Christ.

In the Philippine experiment, it appears that the Filipino faith has not deeply rooted to such concept thus the contradiction in many things, like: killing is a sin but majority of Filipino Catholics as shown by polling surveys, approve of Duterte’s war on drugs and the resultant extra judicial killings; corruption is a sin but as a voter, the religious has no compunction electing corrupt officials, adulterers, or themselves bribing those who could help or alleviate their cause or suffering.

Hence, an obvious disconnect between lived reality and proclaiming the divine truth. Filipinos live in a corrupt society that extends to democratic and religious structures and have adapted to the behavioral patterns of such culture. Consequently, the struggle with the truth results in relativizing Christian convictions in dealing with such culture and other religions.

The Pope himself warns against absolutizing of any creed. His overture to Abu Dhabi illuminates this point that encounters with other religions (Muslims in particular) shows God’s permissiveness with religious pluralism as equally vehicles for salvation. But the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines would recoil at such an idea (i.e. Muslim Mindanao) much less reconcile with the Church of God International (Ang Dating Daan) whose adherents constantly attacks the Catholic Church. Besides, Filipino Catholics will squirm at “Dating Daan’s” idea of salvific redemption.

Most Filipino Catholics ascribe to the “weather-weather lang yan” culture of politics, religion and the daily life thus fail to relate faith’s role in a democracy because if they did, Duterte would have been history and his ilk like Bong Go, Bato dela Rosa, Tito Soto, Bong Revilla, and others would have been picked up in the kangkongan. Instead, they have been given the people’s mandate and share the honor only reserved to the true honorable statesmen of Congress.

The Bicolano vote in the last elections reflected a true adherence to the call of the Church for self-reflection. The vote, particularly in Naga City, reflected a mature decision to elect upright individuals but sadly diluted by a national vote influenced by populism and cultural relativism. Bicol in this sense, would have been better served by federalism that by design, would have served Bicolanos well.