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

5. Critical Theological Reflection on Power Dynamics

The thick description of Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement sketches its multifaceted power dynamics. Besides indicating collusion or resistance through changing historical instances, it identifies its inherent and allied powers as well as their interactions.

Moreover, it offers a strategic lens for analyzing the power dynamics in particular social engagements. Filipino Catholicism wields greater power when all or some of the following conditions obtain: 1) the issue is perceived, consciously or not, as linked to the symbolic network based on salvation history, 2) Catholic positions on the issue do not contradict other social actors’ views and interests, 3) the church mobilizes its institutional resources for the issue, and 4) Catholics ally with other actors because of personal relations or similarity of views. These indicate how different sources of power interact and extend the reach and strength of Catholicism’s social engagement.[16]

This articulation of power dynamics leads to some theological insights related to Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement. 

First, the power dynamics involved in Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement is inclusive and diverse. It encompasses individuals and groups associated with Catholicism in various ways and interacts with other entities and forces. This inclusive character undermines the often presumed dualism between the religious and the secular, between the spiritual and the temporal as well.

The religious-secular dualism in common theories of secularization has been widely critiqued. Talal Asad insists that such theories lead to an untenable dualism between “a world of self-authenticating things in which we really live as social beings and a religious world that exists only in our imagination.”[17] Thus our social world becomes, by definition, that outside the religious.

Official church documents reflects a similar duality between the spiritual and the temporal orders. Though the Vatican II decree Apostolicam actuositatem (AA) recognizes the unity of and distinction between both orders and the participation of all in the church’s apostolate (AA 5-6), the duality appears in the separation of tasks between clerics and laity: “Pastors have the duty to set forth clearly the principles concerning the purpose of creation and the use to be made of the world, and to provide moral and spiritual helps for the renewal of the temporal order in Christ” while “laymen ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order, guided by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church” (AA 7). While this separation of tasks safeguards the relative autonomy of the temporal and the non-involvement of clerics in public partisan politics, it effectively constitutes the spiritual as the cleric’s domain and the temporal as the laity’s.

However, Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement belies both dualisms. Filipino Catholics, clerics and lay alike, engaged social issues in the spirit of the 1971 Synod document: “action on behalf justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” (“Justice in the World” 6). 

Second, the tensive dynamic between Filipino Catholicism’s symbolic and institutional powers uncovers the profound nature of Christian social engagement. This dynamic does not only account for differing social engagements but also underscores its historical yet eschatological nature.

Catholic perspectives often view this dynamic in terms of the charismatic versus the institutional. But such perspectives prove misleading when they ignore the historically mediated character of both powers. On the one hand, Catholicism’s symbolic network, far from being an ahistorical spiritual or charismatic core, operates within its living tradition expressed in revered stories, images and rituals. This living tradition constitutes what the 2015 International Theological Commission calls the sensus fidelium—“an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them [all the baptized] to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei”(“Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” 2).

On the other hand, Catholicism’s institutional power serves this living tradition expressed in its symbolic network and actualized in particular social engagements. These engagements seek but do not exhaust the fullness of the God’s Reign that is yet to come. Thus, they offer what the church discerns as “the least imperfect social arrangement” at that historical moment. This ever provisional character of Catholic social engagement point to what Johann B. Metz calls “the subversive memory of Christian faith.”[18]

Third, discerning social engagement by all the faithful then calls for a multidirectional interplay between the symbolic and the institutional in their specific historical mediations. However, Catholic thought tends to consider this as “application” of Catholic social teaching to a particular situation, a deductive process that often pays less attention to the situation’s complexity. For instance, the bishops’ pastoral letters on Philippine politics, economy and culture, fail to provide coherent social analysis, often resorting to simply identifying “lights and shadows” in Philippine society.[19]

Catholic discernment of social engagement requires a mutual and interactive process that equally respects the living historical tradition of Catholic Faith as well as the “signs of the times” from below. Bradford Hinze’s study of the impact of Vatican II on New York parish communities illustrates obedience to God’s Word, not only through prophetic proclamations but also in Israel’s lamentations. This underlines the singular presence of the Spirit who is the primal origin and accompanying presence of both official teaching and the people’s common faith.[20]

These theological insights arising from the power dynamics behind Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement invite a more fundamental examination of Christian social engagement as well as its power dynamics. They also suggest the privileged locus of Filipino Catholicism because of its long experience through changing historical contexts and its varied forms of social engagement.

[16] J. M. C. Francisco, “Facilitating Conditions of Church Power,” Landas, 24 (2010) no. 1. pp. 137-141. 

[17] T. Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 193-194.

[18] J. B. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, Trans. David Smith, New York: Seabury Press, 1980, pp. 88-99.

[19] J. M. C. Francisco, “People of God, People of the Nation” and “Letting The Texts on RH Speak For Themselves”: (Dis)Continuity and (Counter)Point in CBCP Statements,” Philippine Studies 63 no. 2 (2015), pp. 223-236.

[20] B. E. Hinze, Prophetic Obedience: Ecclesiology for a Dialogical Church. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016. 


Jose Mario C. Francisco is a Filipino Jesuit Professor at Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University. He has taught at other institutions in the Philippines and abroad; among them, East Asian Pastoral Institute, Gregorian University and Boston College. His research deals with the interface between theology and cultural studies in Asian Christianity. He has published in Concilium and other international journals as well as in books like The Oxford Handbook of Asian Christianity. He is on the editorial board of The International Journal of Asian Christianity and Asia Pacific Mission Studies.

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