The privatization of the Catholic faith

Jayeel Cornelio

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

This is an invitation to academics, theologians, ministers, youth leaders, and the youth themselves to start engaging in a dialogue. My only hope is that in these conversations, the technocratic voice of the adult experts will not drown out the very voice of the people we wish to represent.

Finally doing what many have considered long overdue, the Vatican has recently recognized the need to understand the youth today. In the first week of February, the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture gathers among its ranks sociologists, bloggers, activists, and youth leaders to tackle “emerging youth cultures.”

Cardinal Ravasi, who heads the Council, confesses that young people have become “disconnected” from “unbearable social, political, and religious complexities.” Such disconnection is perhaps most defined in the West. As far as religious affiliation is concerned, for example, one in 3 of American youth born in the early 1990s is unaffiliated according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Perhaps the situation is not as bleak in the Philippines, which tops various indicators of religiosity including belief in God and religious attendance. Among Filipinos aged 18-25, 87.8% attend religious services at least once a month according to the International Social Survey Program on Religion in 2008. But the picture is not entirely clear.

A landmark survey sponsored by the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Youth shows that Mass participation at least once a week among 13 to 39 year old Catholics is at a lower rate of 63%. The same survey shows, too, that “receiving the Sacraments” and “participating in Church activities” have been ranked lowest among their religious practices.

Filipino Catholic youth, it appears, are more into “praying,” “doing good to others,” and “reflecting on the Word of God.” Based on these findings, the report – written in 2003 – admits that Filipino Catholic youth “may be Christianized in concept or knowledge, but with application, through the practices offered by the institutional Church, they tend toward those which are personalist rather than those with an ecclesial or community dimension.”

These data show there are existing studies on the religious lives of Filipino youth at the disposal of schools, youth workers, and religious leaders. In this sense, the Catholic Church in the Philippines seems to be ahead of the Vatican in being able to know and understand the situation of young Filipinos. To what extent these findings inform institutional responses by the Catholic Church is, of course, another matter.

But there are not a lot of these studies. And they demand continuous updating, if the Church and other institutions with clear investments in the lives of the youth are to truly understand them. Given the pace of social change brought about by technological advancement, globalization, and migration, for example, intergenerational differences will be much more defined in the years ahead.

With social change comes, too, religious change. From the point of view of sociology, religious beliefs and practices are contingent on pervading social conditions. There are conditions inimical to certain religious practices but there are those that will encourage another variety more. The social factors leading to the recent rise of Charismatic and Evangelical Christianity in the Philippines are worth reflecting on, for example.

And most of the time, religious change will be felt along generational lines.

It is not an accident that pews in Western European churches are occupied mainly by the remaining gray-haired faithful. Compared to their counterparts in other countries, the statistics above show that Filipino youth are still generally religious. This is why it is important for observers to not immediately import findings based on other contexts to describe our own. For example, such terminologies as “Generation X” or the “Millennials” do not make sense in the Philippine context and yet they are sometimes uncritically employed by commentators.

So what exactly does it mean to be religious for our Filipino Catholic youth today?

Everyday companion

A few years ago I conducted interviews with students involved in Catholic organizations around Metro Manila. In light of the Vatican’s recognition of the need to understand the youth, I find that now is the most suitable time to share some of my findings. In so doing, it is my hope that these will trigger deeper reflections and more systematic research on the religious lives of the young today. Many of these ideas are not fully threshed out by the surveys above.

Here I share two areas that have come to fore in my research.

For some, being Catholic means first and foremost having a personal and experiential relationship with God. In this schema, God is perceived to be an everyday companion who understands the person. One can communicate to Him anywhere, anytime. In response, He will communicate in various ways from the mundane such as a forwarded inspirational text message to the provocative in the form of deep personal crisis. This relational aspect, to me, rectifies the stereotype that young Filipino Catholics are simply instrumentalist or transactional with their faith.

Another facet that I have come across among my informants is that being Catholic is about exercising it in practical ways such as participating in community outreaches.

This may explain why we have a lot of youth involved in the projects of Gawad Kalinga (GK), for example. One of my informants, who rarely attends Mass, feels that her decision to be involved in GK is justified because “in this way, something is at least happening, right? You get to help people unlike [when you’re] merely attending Mass. You’re just sitting there…” When probed deeper, the moral discourses of these young people can be traced back to the ideas of the Golden Rule.

Amid these nuances, there appears to be a critical outlook towards the religious leadership for various reasons. One of my informants, who is a student catechist, has admitted to me that he disliked attending Mass at his local parish because the priest did not waver from “preaching about hell.” Others have commented on what they perceive to be the incessant interference of the CBCP in politics, not to mention what was then the RH bill. But perhaps more difficult was what another informant felt when he found out that his own friend became a victim of abuse in their parish – a moral issue that the Church in the Philippines needs to confront as well.

These accounts, of course, are not to deny the positive experiences with their religious leaders. A common denominator among those who feel they are really part of the Catholic Church is the fact that they are known and have been mentored personally by their parish priests or lay leaders.

Collectively, these nuances concerning being Catholic suggest that the “heavy” aspects of religion such as doctrine, rite, and sacred traditions are not prominent. To highlight the generational difference, one can perhaps contrast these to the more evident forms of devotional piety among the elderly (usually female) such as praying the rosary on a daily basis, wearing the scapular, or even volunteering for the activities of the parish.

Privatization of faith

Noticeable here is the apparent privatization of the Catholic faith. And reinforcing it is a critical outlook towards what young people consider to be the excesses of some religious leaders.

But this is not necessarily a formal detachment from the Catholic religion. If anything, these facets reveal the reinterpretation or re-articulation of what it means to be Catholic for young Filipinos today. It is about experiencing God and being able to express faith in practical ways. Expertise over doctrines, participation in the Sacraments, and belonging to one’s parish are not necessarily fundamental. A phrase I have adopted to capture all these nuances is “reflexive spirituality.”

Without care or respect, these youthful nuances of the faith can be easily dismissed as shallow. Be that as it may, that is where – or better yet, who – they are.

The Plenary Assembly in Rome may be taken by some with cynicism because, apart from being considerably late in the game, is taking place in the wake of abuse cases that have rocked the religious establishment for many years now. Cardinal Ravasi seems to be aware of this in admitting that “we have excluded [the youth] with our corruption and inconsistency.” In addition, the wide net cast by its theme “emerging youth cultures” will mean that country-to-country differences may fall through.

Much to the dismay of many interested individuals, the Plenary is unfortunately a closed-door event. But that should not stop us from asking the right questions and teasing them out among ourselves in the Philippines: Who are the youth today? Where are they headed? What bothers them? And can we do something to ensure that none is left behind?

This is an invitation to academics, theologians, ministers, youth leaders, and the youth themselves to start engaging in a dialogue. My only hope though is that in these conversations, the technocratic voice of the adult experts will not drown out the very voice of the people we wish to represent – the youth. In the words of “The Hunger Games,” may the odds be ever in their favor.

Let the conversations begin. –

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen and visiting affiliate at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Jayeel is also assistant professor in the Development Studies Program and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University. His first book, which deals with the religious identity of Filipino Catholic youth, is currently under review with the Ateneo Press. Some of the findings in this commentary are explored further in this working paper.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI