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Filipino Catholics need a new paradigm in religious pluralism

Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has been encouraging Catholics toward missionary transformation that should lead to a genuine cognizance of, and perhaps lead up to redeeming the missionary nature of the Catholic Church. His idea of achieving a synodal church is anchored on four main principles: that time is greater than space, that realities are greater than ideas, unity over conflict, and the whole is greater than the part.

For the life of me, it seems that Filipino Catholics are not in sync with the world Catholic community and pay little attention to the importance that the pope gives to these principles. I point an accusing finger to the Filipino bishops for such failure given their “I’m satisfied” attitude in the primacy of numbers that the Philippines is predominantly Catholic.

Pope Francis explains in Amoris Laetitia the abstractions of the first principle this way. “Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”

The pope, in essence, is saying that there is room for change in pursuit of the common good and social justice for humankind that is achievable with divine guidance, it is an act of faith, and reflects the structure of ecclesiastical communities. Bishops should not content themselves with pews filled on Sundays but be shepherds in a new approach to evangelization in search of God’s faithful people. They should champion not only ecumenism but religious pluralism.

Ecumenism is reaching out to other Christians to strive toward unity rather than conflict, as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Religious pluralism is recognizing and respecting other religious beliefs, but for it to exist, there must be a dialogue. Everyone is a consumer of faith – the belief that the church exists to serve them rather than for mission; Pope Francis encourages us to be producers of faith through ecumenism and espousing religious pluralism so we can serve/help, protect each other and in the process (it takes time), enrich the Church and the Kingdom of God.

The ”Word” that arrived in the Philippines over five centuries ago brought by Europeans overtime became the “flesh.” Filipinos ditched their local religious beliefs in favor of the wooden cross planted in Cebu along with the better-looking images that they brought, but the locals never quite assimilated the Gospel into it – they just refined the old “pagan” traditions with greater piety. God could not have been a party to torture, inhuman treatment, and oppression of the invading colonialists.

The “Word” that was highly influenced by Hellenistic culture and Roman Catholic traditions that was already rooted before its arrival, became the privileged bearer of Revelation itself. It was enculturating European/Christ-centric liturgy to the local cultural background. With the arrival of the Americans, the inculturation of the “word” underwent further enrichment into what it is now – a Westernized life into the Church often infected by relativism and nihilism.

What the pope is telling us is that enculturation should adapt to the present reality because “realities are greater than ideas.” The present Philippine reality is that 80 some percent of the population are poor Catholics who lack access to basic healthcare. Therefore, God should be seen from their faces not only on Sundays when they fill up the “space,” but outside where the missionary work can take place to liberate them from the evils of capitalism and the dehumanizing impact of poverty.

While the Philippines is a religiously conservative country, new knowledge of liberal ideas on reproductive health, divorce, domestic violence, and the death penalty are areas currently being explored by legislators. These topical areas are where the poor bear the disparate burden. They present opportunities for the clergy to commune with the poor by addressing what Pope Francis calls “tension between fullness and limitation, between hope and process improvement (that takes time), and the tendency to hold onto already established privileges, powers, or institutional responses in the present moment (space).”

In the Philippines where 80+% of Filipinos are Catholics (and coincidentally, the same percentage representing the poor), are not being served well by their bishops. The Council of Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is at the crosshairs of the Vatican. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle fired a broadside last September when he spoke to a group of Filipino bishops in Tagaytay City.

The topic was on “The Call for Fraternal Cooperation and Synodality” when he spoke at the Caritas Philippines Academy in the city. “The ‘culture of superiority’ among people, and even within the church, is one of the hindrances to synodality,” said the cardinal. Tagle reiterated that the church needs to overcome that mentality to effectively promote synodality and fraternal cooperation.

The fact that Tagle picked the occasion to needle the Filipino bishops reflects Vatican’s irritation with the CBCP leadership who did not do much in the past two years to truly support the pope’s call for synodality. Tagle was reemphasizing what he said back in 2012 during the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. “For the church to be a place where people meet God, it needs to learn three things from the example of Jesus: humility, respect for others, and silence.”

Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, said at the same forum when he made an equally strong plea for humility. “Evangelization has been hurt and continues to be impeded by the arrogance of its messengers,” Villegas said. “The hierarchy must shun arrogance, hypocrisy and bigotry… and that the Gospel cannot thrive in pride,” Villegas said. “When pride seeps into the heart of the church, the Gospel proclamation is harmed.”

After the stinging rebuke at the 2022 presidential election in the Philippines, amid Pope Francis’ call for synodality, the newly designated cardinal, Jose Advincula, Archbishop of Manila admitted, “Our local Church is far from being with the Church of the poor that we aspire to be. The Church does not know the poor and the poor do not know the Church.” Add to that Bishop Virgilio David, CBCP president’s comment: “Many priests and lay leaders have tended to be more welcoming toward the wealthy and the influential.” Touché!

Such attitude and arrogance are reflected well in how the leadership views their role in achieving synodality. Being predominantly Catholic, is a disincentive to do better, to be more Catholic, if you will, because regardless of their efforts, the percentage of Catholics in the country will remain static and that I believe, is the benchmark being used. Consequently, the situation on the ground remains static too when it comes to enriching the faith.

The poor are not only poor materially, but also spiritually. Week-in, week-out, they will fill the pews, albeit in overflowing fashion, climb images during processions, and hope for deliverance that the church can’t deliver.


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