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A “Powerless” Church

Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, SThD

Along the Way


THE Catholic Church in the Philippines has a reputation for being a powerful and influential institution. During Martial Law, she was the only institution remaining that could stand up to Marcos’ dictatorial rule. Church people were at the forefront of the resistance against the dictatorship–providing alternative sources of information because media was suppressed, monitoring human rights violations, organizing protest rallies, and collaborating with other groups and movements fighting for freedom.

The Church played a big part in the ouster of Marcos at EDSA a few weeks after the CBCP came out with a pastoral letter denouncing electoral fraud and after Cardinal Sin appealed to the people through Radio Veritas to go to EDSA to defend Ramos, Enrile, and the RAM who were holed in Camp Crame after an unsuccessful coup attempt.  The iconic image of EDSA I was the multitude of people, including priests and nuns, bringing crosses, statues of saints and rosaries, facing tanks and soldiers. People power was linked with Church power. The Church continued to exercise an influential role in the post- Marcos era and even in the ouster of a corrupt and immoral president and the ascension to power of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The power of the Church was projected onto the image of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sworn into office at the EDSA shrine before Chief Justice Davide, with Cardinal Sin and the Papal Nuncio in attendance.

Fifteen years later after EDSA 2, with the ascendancy of a new president, Rodrigo Duterte, much has changed. It appears that the power of the Church has waned. The Church is now perceived by many as powerless and lacking influence or political clout. This was already apparent during the Aquino presidency with the passage of the Reproductive Health Law. The recent national elections of  have made this even more evident. Duterte considered the recent elections a plebiscite daring Catholics to choose between electing him or obeying the appeal of the Church to vote according to their conscience and reject candidates whose behavior are contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Duterte equated his landslide victory with the defeat of the Church–proof of the powerlessness and waning influence of the Church. The Iglesia ni Cristo, whose leaders can dictate to their members whom to vote for — appears to be even more powerful. Thus, Duterte could insult and bully the Church without fear or restraint despite the Church’s offers of prayers and vigilant collaboration. Duterte does not have to worry about any Church-backed movement to oust him. He can do anything he likes without any vigorous resistance from the Church–whether it is to carry out his election promise of more extrajudicial killings, re-impose the death penalty, give a deposed, corrupt dictator a hero’s burial, full implementation of the RH law, etc. In fact, he can count on the support or acquiescence of the majority of Catholics – including many priests and nuns – who voted and campaigned for him in spite his having insulted the pope and having promised to destroy the Church.

So what accounts for the Church’s apparent powerlessness?

Even if the Church membership accounts for over 80% of the population, the Church is not a monolithic organization whose members are all actively living according to her teachings and obeying Church’s leadership. Church unity–especially in the political sphere–is non-existent. There is no such thing as a Catholic vote. The majority of the Church members are nominal and seasonal Catholics who are either ignorant of the Church’s teachings, ignore these or who selectively follow whatever suits them. The results of the recent elections would give the impression that the majority do not follow their conscience, or have no conscience – lacking a sense of right and wrong. For many there is nothing wrong with killing, stealing, cheating, lying, committing adultery. An appeal to conscience is futile.

The CBCP can come out with pastoral letters about these issues, but very few will listen – not even the Catholic politicians who are products of Catholic educational institutions. There are many lay movements in the Churchm but they are simply pious organizations lacking in social engagement. Majority of our Basic Ecclesial Communities are still Gospel-sharing groups or liturgical assemblies incapable of inspiring personal conversion and mobilizing for social transformation.

One cannot entirely blame the majority of nominal Catholics for lacking in conscience and for ignoring the Church teachings. The leadership of the Church – the clergy and religious – and our Catholic institutions must admit a lot of shortcomings. We continue our maintenance mode rather than adopt a more missionary strategy. Our efforts and programs in new evangelization and catechesis lack vigor, creativity, and effectiveness and do not lead to personal conversion and formation of conscience. We are not exercising enough our prophetic vocation nor do we empower or inspire the laity to do so. The clergy have become less credible due to allegations of luxurious lifestyles, financial anomalies, and sexual misconduct. Even if these are the faults of a few, these have been sensationalized by the media and have increased anti-clericalism. These can become a hindrance to carrying out our prophetic mission under the new regime.

The apparent powerlessness of the Church can be blessing in disguise. It should make the Church more humble and devoid of arrogance. The Church cannot influence or dictate what policies and laws the government will adopt. The Church cannot be a power-broker. All it can be is to be a powerless servant and prophetic Church. All we can do is to vigorously carry out our mission of new evangelization and catechesis and focus on the formation of conscience, empower the laity, form communities of missionary disciples in our parishes and Basic Ecclesial Communities capable of confronting evil and transforming society in the future. In doing so, nominal and seasonal Catholics will hopefully be transformed into genuine disciples of Christ. All these can be possible with a renewed clergy.

The real power of the Church will ultimately come not from its political clout or influence but from the power of the cross, the power of the Spirit that will renew the face of society.

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