Power Dynamics Beyond Collusion and Resistance – J.M.C. Francisco

Power Dynamics Beyond Collusion and Resistance: “The Catholic Philippines” as Privileged Locus

by Jose Mario C. Francisco

The Philippine sociohistorical experience offers a privileged locus for critical analysis of Catholicism’s engagement with power. Though recognizing the Gospel’s power to transform hearts, this analysis focuses on social engagement in the most populous Catholic nation in Asia. It offers a thick description of power dynamics: first, identifying sources of power and different social engagements, and then discussing related critical theological insights. 

1. Beyond Collusion and Resistance

Before Western colonialism’s entry from the 16th century onward, native settlements, mostly coastal and relatively small except those in Moslem territories, contended with commercial and political powers in the centuries-old Asian maritime trade. Then they became colonized under the Spanish for more than three centuries and the Americans for almost fifty years. Native resistance to these powers were initially escape to the mountains and then armed conflicts—sporadic local revolts, raids from Moslem territories, and the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain and the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. As an American-style constitutional democracy after World War II, the Philippines has been governed by an oligarchy steeped in patronage politics and divided into regional and familial factions. Hence arose governments under “strong leaders”: among them, the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986), the actor Joseph Estrada (1998-2001), and even the current populist Rodrigo Duterte (2016-).[1] Despite “unfinished revolutions” and intermittent reforms under formal democracy, the legacy of this system has been structural poverty of the majority, widening divide between the powerful and the voiceless, and systemic exclusion of constituents such as Moslems, indigenous peoples and women.

Catholicism has had to forge its place in this fractuous landscape. As elsewhere, Filipino Catholics occupy both sides of all political divides. Early Spanish missionaries condemned their accompanying conquistadores over treatment of natives. But their 19th century counterparts colaborated with colonial authorities, while Filipino diocesan priests and lay Catholics participated in nationalist and revolutionary movements against Spain and the USA.[2]

Reeling from colonial disestablishment and schisms from the Philippine Independent Church and later Iglesia ni Cristo, the Catholic Church felt threatened by church-state separation, American culture and Protestant missions under American governance. In defense, different non-Spanish religious orders established schools and ministries with more modern approaches. American Jesuits and their students organized workers and farmers. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church remained socially conservative, especially during the Cold War era and even after the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) recognized social issues as part of its mission.[3] Catholics continue to be divided. During the Marcos regime, some were supporters while others joined Communist-led groups or the anti-Communist opposition.[4]

Given this divided landscape and differing Catholic reactions, analysizing power dynamics through the collusion-or-resistance issue proves inadequate. It is based on the theoretical and practical framework of binary power relations and risks reducing Christian social engagement to ideology. In contrast, this essay proposes a multifaceted approach to the sources of power behind Catholic social engagement.

[1] P. N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, 2nd Edition. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017, pp. 311-348.

[2] J. N. Schumacher, Revolutionary Clergy. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press 1998.

[3] C. Barry, “The Limits of Conservative Church Reformism in the Democratic Philippines”, in T.-J. Cheng/D. Brown (ed.), Religious Organizations and Democratization: Case Studies from Contemporary Asia, pp. 157–79. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.

[4] A. F. Moreno, Church, State, and Civil Society in Postauthoritarian Philippines: Narratives of Engaged Citizenship, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006, pp. 31-68.

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