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

3. The Institutional Power of the Catholic Church

The Philippine Catholic Church’s institutional power and footprint follow the official Catholic structure consisting of juridical territories like dioceses and parishes and based on doctrinal beliefs, moral codes and religious practices. It encompasses ministries of religious orders and different lay organizations with varying degrees of church linkages. After Vatican II, other associations like the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines emerged as moral rather than formal juridical entities.

Noteworthy in relation to social engagement is the role of lay groups, non-official juridical entities but missioned to evangelize “the temporal sphere” (Apostolicam actuositatem 6). Though traditional organizations like Legion of Mary focus on devotional practices, more recent groups, especially those charismatic or evangelical, have taken differing positions on social issues, often depending on their relations to church leaders. Couples for Christ (CFC) supported the impeachment of President Joseph Ejercito Extrada on corruption charges, while El Shaddai, influenced by American prosperity Gospel, supported him.[9]

This institutional footprint involving clerics, religious and laity has extensive reach, especially through strategically located Catholic institutions.[10] It facilitates social engagement by concerted action and moral persuasion, and interaction with the state and other political actors.

In the 1960s, Catholic leaders and groups succeeded in modifying legislation on including Rizal’s “anti-Catholic” novels in school curricula, while more recently, they worked with Congress for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law and mobilized parishes and schools against constitutional change.[11]

But less known is how the church’s institutional power has supported critics and whistleblowers against the political establishment. Before the People Power Revolution, religious houses gave refuge to prominent critics including the Commission on Elections staff who refused to encode fraudulent election returns. Since then, whistleblowers have often approached these communities. Such complex situations have produced either crucial evidence of wrongdoing or tainted and recanted testimonies jeopardizing the church.

However, Filipino Catholicism’s institutional power is not monolithic. Though an overwhelming 80% of the total Philippine population identify as Catholic, its hold among its members varies, depending on members’ location at church’s center or margins. Thus the church’s official voice is not necessarily heeded, as in the issues of the reinstatement of the death penalty or the reproductive health legislation. Related to current President Duterte’s war on drugs, this difference between official and popular voices has become most challenging: strong public criticism from some church leaders but overwhelming support from the Catholic majority.

[9] J. M. C. Francisco, “Mapping Religious and Civil Spaces in Traditional and Charismatic Christianities in the Philippines,” Philippine Studies 58 Nos. 1-3 (2010), pp. 185-221.

[10] P. N. Abinales, Images of State Power: Essays on Philippine Politics from the Margins. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998, pp.166-179.

[11] J. M. C. Francisco, “People of God, People of the Nation: Official Catholic Discourse on Nationalism and Nation”, Philippine Studies 62 Nos. 3-4 (2014), pp. 315-350.

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