The Long Reach of Catholicism

I was raised Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic school, served in church, sang in a choir, and went to church twice a week. I have nothing against religion or the religious, and when I’m confronted by my wife who is furiously anti-religion and she tells me about different churches and religions’ many contradictions, abuses, etc. I tell her that it’s not about what the church takes from me or how it “lies” to me, it’s how my religion personally brings me peace of mind. So yes, even now as a Catholic that doesn’t regularly go to church, I have nothing but good things to say about how the Catholic Church has affected me as a person. The bible is indeed a good source of hope and wisdom, and there have been many dark times when it pulled me out of despair.

I believe I am not alone in being this way. In the Philippines, the effect of the Roman Catholic church is even deeper. Though there is a separation of church and state, the church holds a strong influence on Filipinos even if they’re not religious. It takes over their relationships, their calendar, almost everything. Growing up in the Philippines, I got lucky enough to be accepted in a special school with science-focused curriculum. Students were drilled with advanced sciences, mathematics, and oddly enough “values education,” a subject which had very heavy religious components. The church is simply everywhere in the country, even in a school of science! It’s almost as if without religion, one runs the risk of having no moral values, and thus the church and being religious is so necessary. (I imagine if my school back then didn’t have a bit of religion, it would be accused of raising little heathens.)

Once again, let’s look at politics in the country. It is not uncommon for sexual issues to be at the forefront during elections. Often, it is the candidate with the support of the church that wins out in the elections, be it local or federal. On a trip to the Philippines a few years ago, I was surprised to learn it was coincidentally a few weeks into the election campaign season. One of the main topics being debated was the legality of contraception. It was 2011 and people were still debating whether women should have access to birth control pills. In country that is overpopulated with around 20% living in poverty, one would think access to birth control pills would at least help the country economically by allowing families to plan their futures, especially since abortion is still strictly illegal in the country. So yeah, it was election season and due to strong religious sentiments, the use of contraceptives was a hot debate.

But that’s not the worst of it. There was also a debate against the use of condoms in the country during my visit. Again, that was 2011. Fast forward to 2017, and the country is still debating the use of condoms, with the president openly advocating forgoing its use. In 2017, the HIV rate in the Philippines started to soar.

Being a religious country, there is a strong patriarchal culture in society. There are deeply defined roles for family members and genders. Stepping outside of these norms can be dicey. Outside of being fodder for laughter and curiosity, being gay is still considered a sin. Future presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao even compared homosexuality to degeneracy lower than animals. That’s boxer and current senator Manny Pacquiao letting his religious views lost the support of the roughly 11% LGBTQ in the Philippines. And again with its strong gender and family roles, divorce is still considered taboo in the country. The Vatican and the Philippines are the only two sovereign states that still won’t allow couples to divorce. Annulment is allowed in the country instead, but it is prohibitively expensive, can take a long time to resolve, and still results in negative stigma after the separation.

Of course, those are just a couple of issues where the church’s heavy hand is felt by Filipinos. The church acts like the moral center of Filipinos, dipping its toes on even non-religious issues as drug use, media.

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m exclusively harping about the negative effects of the Roman Catholic Church on Filipinos, but the church does fuel a lot of the conservatism that holds the country back. Now, going back to what I was thankful for about the religion is the personal peace it offers (as opposed to the external conflicts it can fuel, but let’s talk about that some other time). Having religion growing up, I was grateful of having that sense of hope, or a the sense that a personal divine observer is out there looking out for me. Now this might sound fantastical, but living in a country that has struggles with crime and poverty, then me moving to Canada at a young age, and then dealing with the pressures of being a young adult, religion gave me hope that somehow, someway, things will always be fine. I didn’t have as hard a life as other Filipinos in comparison both abroad and at home had, so I could only imagine how much more solace they found through religion.

Personally, one thing I noticed that Filipino families are often so willing to do is to forgive. Now what do I mean by that? You know how many families often have that one bad seed? Or maybe that one argument that tears the family apart? Maybe it’s just me, but I think Filipinos are more often willing to forgive and welcome back their prodigal sons than most people. I’ve seen/experienced it a couple of times. However, I’ve seen people from other nationalities cut off family members over some ancient squabble. This is all anecdotal, of course, but it’s not uncommon for me to hear someone in Korea say that they are no longer in contact with a relative due to a past wrongdoing. With Filipinos however, one could have a long resume of sins and still be welcome to every Christmas dinner (though that person will be gossiped about afterwards). So yes, forgives, for better or for worse, has been ingrained by the church in the Philippine psyche.

Looking at all of it from the most utilitarian point of view, what does the Roman Catholic church promise? Life on earth is temporary and the afterlife is eternal. Everyone you lost in life will be reunited with you once again in the afterlife. You have God watching over you 24/7, and any challenge or setback you face is something that you can overcome because it is part of his plan. God loves you for what you are. God will protect you from your enemies and provide for your needs. God will forgive you for all of your sins as long as you ask for forgiveness. Imagine being a citizen of a recently conquered nation, someone who experienced tragedy, or simply someone in need of hope, doesn’t all of these promises sound too good not to accept? No wonder the Roman Catholic Church tagged along with Spanish colonialism. People having religion also helps to survive not only through a series of colonial regimes in the past, in modern times, it also helps getting out of bed easier in the face of long tiring and challenging day, be it due to poverty or simply just the redundancy of everyday life.

The New Testament itself mirrors many of the ideals Filipinos see in themselves, especially when one looks at the country’s national anthem, Lupang Hinirang (The Land that was Chosen): their sense of uniqueness, the value of hard work towards reaching a goal, the duty for self-sacrifice. The Church has a tradition of having a “chosen one” be it Jesus Christ or the many saints and martyrs. Filipinos have a sense of being unique, and in a way being chosen for a better future amidst its much wealthier neighbors. Now, I’m sure this is the same for many other countries as well, but this is made so much evident in the national anthem’s lyrics: The Pearl of the Orient… The Land that was Chosen… A country can’t get any more special than being “the land that was chosen,” a land whose populace would be happier and more prosperous if it weren’t for invaders. Then the song talks about oppression and rising above it much like Jesus did. And as for the duty of self-sacrifice, Land of the sun of glory and passion, the skies are alive in thy presence. Our joy is when someone comes to oppress thee, is to die for you. Compare this national anthem’s lyrics to Oh, Canada. The Canadian anthem entrusts God to protect the country and its citizens promise to stand on guard for the nation, not to joyfully die.

In closing, if I was to offer a travelers guide to anyone being around Filipinos, due to religious influence, chances are you could expect a bit of conservatism, Catholic guilt due to people’s upbringing, some judgmental attitude behind closed doors, and a patriarchal attitude regarding the nuclear family. Oh and there’s hope. There’s a lot of hoping and praying.

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