The resignation of Joseph Ratzinger from the Papacy won’t please the ultra-conservatives dominant in the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Unless someone like-minded becomes Pope, it will be, for them, one of the most distressing events of all since Pope John XXIII sat on the throne of Peter from 1958 to 1963 and introduced a wave of reforms that among other consequences encouraged the rise of liberation theology and the involvement of nuns and priests in social movements. (Not incidentally was Ratzinger particularly hostile to this part of John XXIII’s legacy.)
The ultra-conservatives recently demonstrated their influence over such secular entities as the country’s courts and its laws (they succeeded in getting tour guide Carlos Celdran convicted of “offending religious feelings” for holding up a placard with the word “Damaso” on it during a church gathering in Manila). They’ve also threatened to campaign against those candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives who supported, or worse, were among the sponsors of Republic Act No. 10354, or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.
Despite recent ultra-conservative muscle-flexing, however, Ratzinger’s decision to resign as Pope for reasons of age and health comes at a far from ideal time for the hardliners of the Philippine Church.
Not only has the Catholic Church in the Philippines been losing the faithful to other churches. Philippine Catholicism is also developing into a Church of fast food faithful — a church of people who call themselves Catholics but who choose to observe from among the Church’s smorgasbord of doctrinal precepts, teachings and political preferences only what suits them.
Church involvement in politics — which Ratzinger before he became Pope and while head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) upheld as a doctrinal principle — has only rarely yielded the desired results in the Philippines.
The supposedly faithful have often ignored such allegedly morally based instructions as who to vote for. Two instances are illustrative, and they involve the election of Presidents: that of Fidel Ramos in 1992 and of Joseph Estrada in 1998.
Both won despite a Church campaign against them, Ramos for being Protestant, and Estrada for his alleged incompetence (the late Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, said then that the election of Estrada would be “a disaster”). Ramos’ victory was all the more surprising in the context of the Church’s seemingly pivotal role in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos only six years earlier.
The Church did help remove Estrada from office in 2000 in what has come to be known as EDSA 2, but was only one of several forces involved in the process, among those forces being the business community, civil society groups, and left-wing formations.
The Church role in EDSA 1986 has itself been exaggerated. For well over a decade the Church had favored a policy of critical support for the Marcos dictatorship, the policy being more supportive than critical. When the Church did position itself against the regime, it was in support of what was likely to be the winning side, and to halt the brewing rebellion in the priestly ranks against what progressive clergy regarded as a policy of Church collaboration with the regime.
The overthrow of the Marcos regime had in fact been in the making since the declaration of martial law. By 1986 a broad alliance of anti-dictatorship groups had developed even as various armed groups including the MNLF and the NPA were challenging it in the Philippine countryside. The Church had no choice but to join the resistance to the regime it once supported.
If many Catholics obey Church dicta about politics only selectively, so do they observe such other mandates as its opposition to artificial means of spacing pregnancies, and the use of condoms for safe sex only when it suits them.
And yet Ratzinger even before he was Pope had a number of times condemned the use of condoms, and like his bishops in the Philippines and their surrogate political groups, had even claimed that condom use made the spread of AIDS more likely, their proferred solution to the global AIDS epidemic being the Church mantra of abstinence. The truth of that claim is, of course, completely denied by the facts, non-condom use being the companion of the spread of AIDS in several African countries.
As for the use of abstinence to space pregnancies, that’s an option few people who describe themselves as Catholics are willing to take, hence the popularity among the Filipino middle-class of such artificial means of birth control as condoms and the pill rather than the Church-preferred rhythm method. Among the more recent indications of Catholic sentiment in this country was the overwhelming support, some 70 percent, for the RH bill when it was being debated in Congress.
That wasn’t lost on the country’s politicos, who for years had believed that there’s such a thing as a Catholic vote despite evidence to the contrary. The result was the approval of RA 10354 and its signing into law by the supposedly devout Catholic Benigno Aquino III.
The institutional Church’s response to the slide in its influence over the flock has been to bully government officials, including Aquino, whom one bishop once threatened to ex-communicate for his support for the RH bill. It has also emphasized, a la certain Muslim groups, and echoing Ratzinger, the fundamentals of Catholicism in opposition to the pro-people involvement of nuns and priests in such issues as environmental protection, militarization, and human rights violations.
The ensuing tendency of activist priests and nuns to condemn the dominant structures of power and social relations in the poor countries of the world Ratzinger had denounced as legacies of liberation theology — which his patron Pope John Paul II had taken great pains to expunge among the clergy — and as “too Marxist.”
And yet it is this kind of involvement that has brought both priest and Church closer to the people of the communities and nations besieged worldwide by unjust social and political structures, environmental destruction, imperial dominance, and the resulting poverty and injustice that’s the fate of billions.
Rather than affirm the need in such a world for a preferential option for the poor and oppressed, and to fight for them, the institutional Church has chosen to align itself with the powerful and their interest in keeping things as they are. Its irrelevance to the realities of the human condition helps explain why it’s losing adherents to other churches while many of those who do stay with it do so mostly out of habit.