There is no One Catholic Church

Jayeel Cornelio

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Catholicism's diversity is a double-edged sword. While it is to be celebrated, it is also the reason for the tensions within the institution.

Lest I be called a theological heretic, let me be clear with my position right at the onset. While there is a religious institution called the Roman Catholic Church that professes the unity of the Trinitarian faith, I view Catholicism as a religion whose expressions among the faithful are necessarily informed by political, cultural, geographic, and socio-economic conditions. From an institutional perspective, the Catholic Church is wholly one.  But from a sociological perspective, it is clearly diverse.  

Such diversity is a double-edged sword. While it is to be celebrated as the richness of the Catholic tapestry, it is also the reason for the tensions within the institution. Debates surrounding the recent synod on the family have demonstrated this.  

For me though as an academic observer, Catholicism’s diversity is a minefield for analysis and the discernment of trends. Social scientists may not hold the keys to the future but at least our findings or observations can inform the discourse and activities of the faithful.       

To make this impact can perhaps be one of the goals of the latest issue of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, a respected international journal. I had the privilege of editing the special issue on Filipino Catholicism, whose contributing authors come from the various disciplines of sociology, anthropology, history, and theology. Already, the diversity of disciplines signals the diversity too of approaches to studying the contemporary state of Catholicism in the Philippines. (The journal will be launched Friday afternoon, November 21.)

The special issue features three themes worth investigating: the relationship between church and the nation-state, popular religion, and reflections on conducting research. These three themes demonstrate too the fact that Catholicism as a religion manifests itself in different respects.

Church-State relations

The first theme recognizes that one of the most enduring facets of Filipino Catholicism is its participation in politics, which is heavily informed by its dynamic view of the Philippines as a state and as a nation. Acknowledging the secular character of the state, the Catholic Church, through its clergy and laity, enters the public sphere as a defender, for example, of the weak.  

Based at Mahidol University in Thailand, Coeli Barry documents the changes that took place as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the religious lives of nuns, personalities that are often marginalized in Catholic historiography and the institution itself. Influenced by Conciliar documents on social action, sisters started to become involved with the protests of the marginalized, including women workers despite prohibitions during the Martial Law.  

In other cases, however, the Church is triumphalist, one with a privileged – and arguably male – voice in a society where it is clearly the dominant religion. As such, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is in a perennial democratic dilemma. For the political scientist David Buckley, the dilemma has to do with how the Church sees itself as having substantial influence over legislation and voting behavior, but that influence may in fact be fleeting. Especially in relation to the Reproductive Health law, Catholic leaders resorted to a defensive stance to uphold “core values of life, family, and religious freedom” which did not resonate with the general public.   

Perhaps underpinning the political behavior of the Catholic Church is its conviction that the Philippines is a Catholic nation with a divine destiny. 

What is intriguing about this view, as Jose Mario Francisco, the former president of the Loyola School of Theology, recounts in his contribution, is that it was never consistent. By analyzing the official documents of the Catholic Welfare Organization and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Francisco traces the genealogy of the idea that the Philippines is a Catholic nation, which is increasingly challenged in the context of globalization. 

Popular religion

Three contributions revolve around popular religion, a theme that remains important within Philippine studies since the seminal writings of Bulatao and Ileto were published. Drawing from different historiographic and ethnographic materials, the contributions in this section offer their respective engagement with the concept of popular religion.   

UP Diliman sociologist Manuel Sapitula’s article, for example, contributes to the debate concerning the supposed antithetical relationship between modernity and popular religion. To him, popular religious forms such as the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran should be seen as modern as they undergo “creative refashioning” that meets the exigencies of the times. In particular, Sapitula looks at the changes that have taken shape in devotees’ prayers, the urban landscape around the shrine, and the regulative role of the clergy that rationalizes devotional practices.  

It is in the same critical spirit that Deirdre dela Cruz, a historian based at the University of Michigan, rethinks popular religion as a concept that usually connotes syncretic practices among poor devotees. In characterizing the events of the 1948 miracle of rose petals in Lipa, Batangas, dela Cruz has observed that the circulation of interest, suspicion, and belief involved not just local residents but also national political elites. Facilitated by wide media coverage, the events surrounding the miracle have given it a truly “public” character that calls into question the conceptual limits of popular religion.  

Finally, the contribution from Josefina Tondo, an anthropologist from DLSU-Manila, employs the concept of lived religion to refer to the continuities between the sociality, identity, and religious practice among Filipina domestic workers in a religious space in Malaysia. Her study brings her to St. John Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur where domestic workers would gather every Sunday to attend mass, pay their respects to the Virgin Mary, meet friends, and share meal with one another.  Ethnographically rich, Tondo’s article discusses too how tensions Filipinas are faced with as domestic workers strengthen their Catholic convictions.   

New modes of thinking

The final theme gives this special issue a reflective character with respect to, broadly speaking, doing studies on Filipino Catholicism. As theoretical and methodological essays, the contributions here are in effect pointing to new modes of thinking about Filipino Catholicism.  

In the first contribution, I offer a conceptual trajectory of popular religion as discussed by different generations of scholars. Starting out as a problematic among social scientists who were also clergy in the mid-20th century, popular religion, as a form of split-level Christianity, was a pastoral concern. In recent years, sociologists and anthropologists have emphasized the assertive and subjective dimension of popular religious practices, a trend which I characterize as a “turn to everyday authenticity.”  

In their co-written piece, Peter Bräunlein and Julius Bautista, anthropologists based at the University of Göttingen and the National University of Singapore, respectively, offer their reflections on ethnography as an “act of witnessing” that renders the anthropologist both a spectator and spectacle at once. Coming from different generations and cultural backgrounds, the authors draw from their ethnography on crucifixion rituals in Bulacan and Pampanga. In particular, they had to negotiate the different roles their informants assumed about them, notwithstanding the assumption that they themselves may want to be crucified. Fascinating and highly personal, their accounts demonstrate that the desire to achieve ethnographic authenticity has to interface with personal and professional restrictions and the expectations of their respective communities.   

The final article, by Paul-François Tremlett from the Open University in London, is strategically located at the end of the special issue as it pushes for a different approach to the study of Filipino Catholicism. An increasingly important mode of inquiry in religious studies, spatial analysis assesses the role of religion in place-making. In his article, Tremlett asks whether El Shaddai, through its prosperity-oriented events in the metropolis, contributes to the “revitalization and reenchantment of the public spaces of the city.” Tremlett notes that neoliberal urbanization, especially in the case of Metro Manila, fosters fragmentation and securitization that religious gatherings, as public events, challenge. Hence, a spatial approach offers “structural explanations” that surveys or thick descriptions of lived religion may not be able to.    

That they may be One

Academic studies such as the ones above may be easily dismissed by others as incomprehensible, heretical, or worse, irrelevant. But they demonstrate to us the cultural richness of Catholicism as experienced by many Filipinos today. They also demonstrate that institutional Catholicism in the Philippines has not been historically consistent with respect to certain issues.  

In a way, all these suggest that the Catholic Church is not wholly one.

It is a sociological and historical fact that needs to be confronted by anyone who is interested in moving the Church forward. At one level, it can easily become a battle over truth claims. But at another level, it can also be that Christianity has long been historically fragmented and that the issues encountered in the Philippines are not necessarily new. Along these lines, one simply has to admit that those who profess the faith can learn from the mistakes of the past and proceed accordingly.

It is for this reason that the theme of “Mercy and Compassion” for the Pope’s arrival in January is most appropriate. In spite of the differences that characterize the Catholic Church today, these virtues remain timeless and may have become even more important. After all, Pope Francis is visiting a country that still has to confront many other issues that range from old-fashioned corruption to the unprecedented disaster caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda.  

For a change, perhaps now is the most opportune time to heed Christ’s prayer that “they may all be one.” –


Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, PhD  is the new director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist of religion, he is the guest editor of the Philippine Studies special issue on Filipino Catholicism. For copies of the special issue, please contact the journal’s editorial office at 4266001 local 4619 or email   

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