Sex and Religion

Finding Religion and Spirituality in Population, Gender, Sexuality, and Reproductive Health Advocacy in the Philippines.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Evangelical Catholics

Evangelical Catholics

By Michael Tan
Last updated 00:55am (Mla time) 09/05/2007

Much has been said about the “crab mentality” in the split within the Couples for Christ (CfC). I wouldn’t throw out this angle, but I worry that the focus on alleged jealousy could become self-defeating, not just for CfC but for the NGO sector in general. Already, I’m getting “You see, I told you so!” feedback from Filipino-Americans who have always been reluctant to support local organizations because they are said to be prone to in-fighting and corruption.

My take here is that we are dealing with two groups that have big differences in the interpretation of what it means to be a Catholic organization. On one hand, we have Tony Meloto and Gawad Kalinga, who have worked, in his own words, on “the Filipino values of integrity, honesty and bayanihan” to mobilize communities around housing, health and livelihood projects. Meloto’s approach has come into conflict with what we can call “evangelical Catholics,” represented by Frank Padilla and his breakaway restoration movement.

Padilla says Gawad Kalinga has moved away from the CfC’s original mission, if not run counter to the Catholic Church’s teachings. One example they’ve been citing is Gawad Kalinga’s acceptance of money from corporations that are in favor of “population control.” Although he didn’t name the corporations, I think Padilla was referring to Pfizer, which is supporting Meloto’s health projects. Pfizer produces the injectable contraceptive, Depo Provera.

Padilla seems especially strident in his opposition to family planning, given the way his group is called: CfC FFFL (Foundation for Family and Life). Meloto has been civil in his response, saying that he subscribes to the Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings, his statements suggesting a wider definition of life to include homeless children and families living in slums.

Defending Catholicism

With the majority of Filipinos claiming to be Catholics, it is important that we understand what’s going on in the Church’s corridors of power, both in the Vatican and in organizations.

I got the term “evangelical Catholicism” from an article in the Aug. 31, 2007 issue of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a liberal American Catholic periodical. The article, “The Triumph of Evangelical Catholicism,” was written by Fr. John L. Allen. There was no mention of the Philippines in the article, but I was struck by how the description of evangelical Catholicism resonated with the CfC controversy.

Allen proposes in his article that “beginning with the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, Catholicism has become a steadily more evangelical Church.” During John Paul’s papacy, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith was the ever vigilant and ever orthodox Josef Cardinal Ratzinger. The cardinal is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Allen wrote his article in the light of two events, both occurring within three days in early July. The first was Pope Benedict’s allowing priests to celebrate the Latin Mass without permission of the local bishop. The second was a declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which states that the Church of Christ “subsists in” Catholicism.

These two moves by the Vatican are, for Allen, “robust assertions” of an evangelical impulse, with three major objectives: accenting the authority of the Pope and the bishops, patrolling doctrinal borders and asserting the exclusivity of Catholicism as the way to salvation.

Allen’s term is new, but these evangelical Catholics have been around for many years, reacting mainly against what they see as a dangerous global drift toward secularism, and to what the Pope has called “the dictatorship of relativism.” They worry especially about the latter, which suggests a situational ethics that calls for more understanding of the circumstances which might lead to “sin,” for example when a person steals out of desperate poverty. They also oppose the view that all religions are equally valid, thus the recent insistence on the use of the word “subsists,” which according to Allen, is a way of saying the “true Church of Christ endures” in Catholicism alone.

Evangelical Catholics see doctrinal purity as a response to a secular and pluralistic world. In 1997, Pope John Paul II issued a document, “Ad Tuendam Fidem,” setting penalties for dissent from “definitive teachings.” Such teachings make no claims of divine revelation, but are there by “logical necessity,” meaning they have to remain simply because they have been taught by the Catholic Church over the centuries. Ratzinger at that time cited the ban on women priests, the ban on euthanasia and the immorality of prostitution and fornication as examples where there could be no compromise. Today, we see that absolute stand taken by local evangelical Catholics against contraception.

Evangelical Catholics are still a minority, but are “undeniably dynamic,” according to Allen. To be sure, there are variations, too, in how hard-line they can be. In the United States, an entire town, Ave Maria, is being built as an evangelical Catholic community by Tom Monaghan, who made his fortune on the Domino’s pizza chain. I watched him in a recent CNN interview clarifying that the community would not require that residents be Catholics. He also backed down on a previous plan to forbid the sale of contraceptives in Ave Maria, after he was told such a ban would be illegal.


There’s more then to this CfC battle than meets the eye. Padilla and his restoration movement is only one of the more recent manifestations of evangelical Catholic energy. Over the past few years they have been vocal in trying to get the government to follow a conservative Catholic line in suppressing family planning efforts.

I admire the way Gawad Kalinga has taken on a social development agenda, and I can only hope Meloto and his followers prove that Catholicism can be advanced, too, by taking up our share of social responsibilities in a pluralistic society.

The socially engaged Catholic is not unique. A strong “humanist Buddhist” movement has emerged in Taiwan and spread throughout Southeast Asia. One group, Tzu Chi, recently moved all the residents of an urban slum area in Jakarta into a housing project they had built, complete with schools -- and a mosque. Like Meloto and Gawad Kalinga, humanist Buddhists have sometimes been criticized as having diluted their religiosity, but they explain that Buddhism has to go beyond prayers.

I couldn’t help thinking, too, of how the Filipino diaspora includes quite a number of Catholic priests sent out as missionaries to all the corners of the world. It would be interesting to see if they pursue a path of aggressive evangelism through preaching and claiming to being the only true religion, or instead choose to bear witness to Christ by serving people and communities.