The Catholic Church: Going out with a bang?

Lou Janssen Dangzalan
The entrenched interests of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, or in countries that have a strong Catholic presence, is slowly being exposed and questioned

MONTREAL, Québec – In the past few weeks in France, there has appeared to be a contest of mass mobilizations between progressive forces that support mariage pour tous (marriage for all) and  traditional forces that want to maintain the status quo — marriage being regarded as an exclusive province of heterosexual couples.

Paris, known for its cosmopolitanism, progressive politics and liberal social attitudes, was witness to a wave of conservative social forces descending on the streets. These forces were armed with streamers and a zealous attitude that can be compared to the crusaders that “liberated” the holy land.

Some observers — commentators on news programs on Canal Plus and columnists on Le Monde, for example — have noted the heavy logistical support that the Catholic Church had moblized during the protests. News reports of buses and TGVs (high-speed trains) ferrying parishioners from more conservative non-urban centers of the country to the capital were in abundance. In many cases, rallies themselves were led by parish priests and bishops in the world-famous Champs-de-Mars.

Religious punctuation in French politics is unusual but nothing new (given the rise of extreme right parties like the National Front and its usual demonization of non-Christian religions, specifically its anti-Muslim agenda — a growing trend in Europe).

What is new is that France, a country known for having laïcité (secularism) as its official religion, is suddenly inundated by a Catholic fervor that wants to preserve traditional Christian values in the public square. It is trying to prove a point by inserting itself in the public debate and trying to produce the most number of warm bodies.

Like the Philippines

Supporters of the government project to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in France have used the same argument that Freethinkers and progressive forces in the Philippines or in Québec have used — that the state is secular and is not to be dictated upon by one sole religion.

The said supporters have said that those who oppose the proposed government measure have equated civil marriage with their religious institution. The implied premise is that the tradition is entrenched in the French Civil Code and needs to be extended to others for civil rights purposes. After all, in a welfare state such as France, there are a lot of government rights and privileges given to married couples (immigration, right to file joint tax returns, adoption, among others).

At the same time across the world, the Catholic church suffers from one scandal after another — from Church finances involving the Vatican Bank, to Catholic priests in the US, Ireland, and Canada implicated in various sexual molestation cases, not to mention the discovery of cover-up attempts by bishops in their dioceses.

In many instances, the Church has had to pay damages to abused children (a lot of whom are now grown up), causing a string of financial headaches for Church accountants. In short, the Church has a litany of problems and public relations nightmares.

In the Philippines, any talk of abuse of power by the men in cloth is still regarded as taboo. We are all too familiar with how the Catholic Church used its political muscle in its prolonged attempt to block the passage of the Reproductive Health Act.

Even more recently, a metropolitan trial court judge rendered a decision against Carlos Celdran using an archaic provision of the Revised Penal Code — one that pertains to “offending religious feelings,” a throwback to the times when the Church and the State were formally the same.

The entrenched interests of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, or in countries that have strong Catholic presence is slowly being exposed and questioned. The diffusion of the conversation, both criticism and the defense of the Church in social media, is a spectacle in itself.

To be sure, the influence of the Catholic Church varies from one country to the next (Spain, for example, has had same-sex marriage for almost a decade now, while Argentina recently adopted its own measure). What is unusual, is that France, a country known for its largely liberal and open views in society and politics (as a result vilified by arch-conservatives in the US — the funniest being the campaign to rename french fries as “freedom fries” because of France’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003), suddenly finds itself as the battle ground of the Catholic Church in its global campaign to stop the march towards marriage equality.

Importing the quiet revolution

Perhaps the Philippines is taking a cue from the French-speaking province of Canada. A little known fact to people outside Canada is that Québec, a Catholic-majority province, went through a period called the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution). This involved the rise of progressive tendencies in Québec society, along with the decline of conservative forces that were usually backed up by the Catholic Church.

In Québec’s political history, the period when the Catholic Church exerted its heavy influence on the public square is called the Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness). A steady decline of conservative forces and the rise of progressive political figures started the exit of the Catholic Church in the province’s political life.

Today, Québec is known for being the most left-leaning among Canadian provinces. Remnants of Catholic influence in Québec remain in the names of practically all towns and cities — Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Saint-Eustache, Saint-Hubert, along with the monumental cathedrals and churches in Québec City and Old Montréal — reminiscent of Intramuros’ concentrated collection of places of worship.

In popular culture, and while it does not have its origins in the Quiet Revolution, it is noteworthy that Québecers have their share of profanities. This is starkly different from those that are used in France and are laced with expressions related to Catholic liturgy. It has, just the same, its origins in society’s frustrations with the Catholic Church and has thus continued to this day.

It is interesting to juxtapose the realities that these 3 largely Catholic jurisdictions (France, Québec, and the Philippines) have when it comes to Church-State relations. While France’s sudden conservative Catholic surge seems to be an anomaly, the recent developments in the Philippines point to another direction.

The proverbial kitchen sink

Just as the Catholic Church in the Philippines threw its weight against the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, the Church seems to be doing the same in its attempt to block the near-certain passage of the French Socialist government project to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples (both the French Senate and Assembly are dominated by a majority of Socialists and left-leaning political parties). 

The conservative turn in France is prefaced by a rising tide of right-wing parties and xenophobic sentiments in Europe in general. Nonetheless, it is also seen by commentators in France and in Europe as the deathpangs of whatever remaining influence the Catholic Church has in French politics — this is more of a demographic reality than anything.

One need only look at the participants of demonstrations across France. Those who oppose the government motion are usually your gray-haired church attendees who are (with all due respect) in their twilight years.

Recent surveys conducted in France indicate that 56% support the government measure, while 39% are against. Contrast that with the younger and more vibrant protesters who came out in support of marriage equality two weeks after.

Noteworthy is the progressive tendency in Québec where groups organized protests in front of the French consulates in Montreal, Québec City, and in front of the French embassy in Ottawa to support the measure.

It has been mentioned in several commentaries that the passage of the Reproductive Health Act is a sign of the start of the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence in the public sphere in the Philippines. 

While the process of secularization of French politics took centuries and was punctuated by violence and protracted opposition, Québec managed to do this within a generation — in two decades, depending on how one interprets the events of the 50s and the 60s.

Only time will tell if the Philippines will follow in the footsteps of Québec (quick and relatively peaceful), or of France (prolonged and protracted) when it comes to secularizing its political discourse. –