The Philippines is the only country in the world which still outlaws divorce. It outlaws abortion too. The Catholic hierarchy are proud of that record and want to safeguard it. They’ve recently been fighting tooth and nail against the Human Reproduction Bill which sought some relaxation of the law. They’re losing, but they’re not giving up without a fight. One bishop recently hung a huge poster on the front of his cathedral with ‘Team Death’ political candidates listed against a black background column and ‘Team Life’ candidates against a red one.
That’s pretty hard-core – as Vatican-compliant as you can get. The fact that 81% of the population declared itself Catholic in the 2007 Census, despite the growth of charismatic Protestant churches, might lead to the conclusion that this strictness is the secret of the Church’s success. But recent research reveals a more interesting picture.
Since the 1990s the Philippines has enjoyed rapid economic growth, and the middle class has expanded. Wander round one of the new urban complexes in Metro Manila and you might as well be in Dallas or Docklands. The new business, retail and residential developments are familiar the world over as places the global middle classes come to work, rest and play. But here you may well find a Catholic church slap bang in the middle, with young and old wandering in as freely as to Starbucks.
In his study of young religiously-active Catholic students in Metro Manila, Dr Jayeel Cornelio found no evidence that young Filipinos were attracted by the Church’s conservative teachings or rather old-fashioned clericalism. Indeed, he found indifference and hostility towards much of what the official church considers important. What attracts these young people is rather the Church’s emphasis on social justice and humanitarianism, and the devotional side of the faith.
Touring round churches in Metro Manila with Jayeel this month, I saw more of what this means for young people from every walk of life. Wherever we showed up, weekday as well as Sunday, there were boys and girls milling around. Some had come on their own, some in small gaggles. What they were not doing was sitting obediently in the pews throughout an entire worship service. If there was a mass going on, they tended to drift in and out for the highlights, and there was a veritable surge at the end as people rushed forward to have an object, or themselves, sprinkled with holy water.
Many weren’t there for a worship service at all. They had come to pray, light a candle, or stand in front of Mary or one of other the saints, often touching the icon to receive its blessings. From their demeanour, it was clear that they had serious business to transact.
For some of these young people the future is now rich with possibilities. With a good education, there is a realistic hope of moving up the socio-economic ladder. A few even manage to do that from the ‘informal settlements’ (shanty towns) which still litter the city. But competition in the global marketplace is intense, and the pressures and risks are high.
Novenas, amulets, scapulas, rosaries, and prayer candles – all were on sale around these churches, and trade was brisk. These ‘traditional’ forms of Catholicism, rarely seen in the West any more, find new meanings in an increasingly affluent modern society. This is a convenient ‘take away’ form of religion, which fits easily with familiar patterns of consumption. But it maintains a connection with the Church because it’s by being blessed, sprinkled with holy water, and offered to God or saint, that spiritual objects become charged and effective.
The official Church in the Philippines, the one that fights to keep divorces banned and abortions illegal, looks hard-core. But if you press through the crowds to see what really goes on in the churches, you see its soft edges. You can wander from shop to church and out again as you please. Life and religion are not separate here. This isn’t just for the pure and holy – it’s not ‘take the whole package or leave it’ religion. It’s much more flexible than that. You can participate on many levels, and for many purposes. In Metro Manila the doors of the churches are literally wide open to the street.
Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She researches religion around the world, and is particularly interested in charting rapid religious change since the 1980s. She was Director of the £12m AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme (2007 to 2013) which commissioned 75 separate projects. Her most recent books are Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (ed) and A Sociology of Religious Emotion. Together with Charles Clarke, she founded and organises the Westminster Faith Debates.