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Are We Filipinos Poor Because We are Mostly Catholic Christians?

Romeo J. Intengan, S.J.

Romeo Intengan, S.J. is provincial of the Jesuits in the Philippines.  A Doctor of Medicine, he was a resident surgeon at the Philippine General Hospital Medical Center, Manila before entering the Society of Jesus.  He earned his S.T.L. from the Universidad Pontificia, Comillas, Madrid, Spain and has been Assistant Professor of Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University.

Certain Observations and Questions Concerning the Relation between Catholic Christianity and Social Development or Social Backwardness in the World and in the Philippines                  


This paper suggests, contrary to claims made quite often, that Catholic Christianity is probably neither essentially incompatible with nor necessarily an obstacle to social development. It also indicates how two sets of factorsFilipino cultural tendencies and trends in Philippine history—have probably interacted, for better or for worse, with the various forms of Catholic Christianity and other religions in the Philippines, as well as with other factors not specified in this paper, to bring about present Philippine social conditions.

General Assertions on Catholic Christianity, Social Development and Social Backwardness

(1) Monocausal (one cause) explanations (such as a particular religion) of complex societal phenomena such as social development or social backwardness (in whatever manner these two latter terms are understood) are simplistic and are scientifically indefensible.

(2) It is possible to arrive at substantial agreement as to what social development is.  The manner in which it is described in documents such as Populorum progressio (Pope Paul VI, 1967) and Sollicitudo rei socialis (Pope John Paul II, 1987) is acceptable to most people.  Detached from its religious ontological presuppositions, this manner of describing social development is even acceptable to secular humanists.

It is in this vein that we can speak of social development as basically a unified concept with many variants.  Such a concept of social development includes the conditions for the all-around and balanced development of each human being.  These conditions allow each human being to enjoy an acceptable quality of life, characterized by basic physical and mental welfare, liberty, equality, participation, solidarity and respect for the integrity of creation.

(3) Catholic Christianity, though it has certain basic identifying characteristics, is expressed in various theologies and spiritualities or “forms of faith.”  Another way of saying this is to affirm that in Catholic Christianity "there is one faith, but many theologies and many spiritualities or ‘forms of faith'." 

Some theologies, spiritualities or “forms of faith” expressing Catholic Christianity are more congenial to social development, others less so.

Could this be part of the reason why northern Italy is socially developed while southern Italy is much less so, though both of these regions are Catholic Christian?  Or why the Basque country of northern Spain has attained a fair measure of social development while Andalucía in southern Spain is less socially developed, though both of these regions are Catholic Christian?  Could the two regions in each of these contrasting sets have quite distinct forms of Catholic Christianity?

(4) It can be reasonably held that those theologies, spiritualities and "forms of faith" more congenial to social development are more authentically Christian by the standards of Sacred Scripture (the Bible), which is held by most Christians to be a reliable record of God's revelation.  These scriptural standards are foundational criteria for deciding which claims to Christian character are authentic and which are inauthentic.

(5) Although monocausal explanations of complex societal phenomena such as social development or social backwardness are simplistic and scientifically indefensible, nevertheless the consistent correlation of one variable (for example, Catholic Christianity) with social development or with social backwardness legitimately gives rise to the suspicion that the variable concerned does contribute significantly to the causation of social development or social backwardness. This consideration justifies serious study of the correlation between said variable (for example, Catholic Christianity), on the one hand, and social development or social backwardness, on the other hand.

(6) The standards of social development and the process of attainment of such standards have a diachronic aspect; they are dynamic and evolving and are not static, and vary according to historical circumstances.

Thus Catholic Christian Spain and France in the early 16th century were arguably more socially developed, by criteria compatible with the real possibilities of that historical period, than Protestant Christian England or northern Germany.  Catholic Christian France, Belgium and Austria have overtaken Protestant Christian United Kingdom in wealth and economic growth, as indicated by Gross Domestic Product.  (For the latter, see Human Development Report 2000, p. 157.  The latter is published by the United Nations Development Program). There is nothing to absolutely preclude (nor guarantee the fulfillment of) the possibility that a few decades in the future Catholic Christian countries may, as a group, become the most socially developed in the world.

Such social development, however, will not have been due to any single factor, not even due to a socially progressive form of Catholic Christianity, but to a happy conjunction of many factors favorable to social development and progress.

(7) Sociological data show that not all Catholic Christian countries or regions are devoid of high levels of social development, nor do they have a monopoly of social maldevelopment.

Catholic Christian France, Belgium and Austria have long been socially developed. 

Some of the most socially underdeveloped parts of the United States of America are Protestant Christian—as for example the "Bible Belt" of the southern part of the Appalachian highlands and large parts of other portions of the southern states.

In the United States of America, if we take average income levels and educational attainment as criteria of social development, Catholic Christianity does not come out badly, since the leading group are the Jews, followed by Catholic Christians, with Protestant Christians coming in last.

Here we have to be careful to observe the results of disaggregating the data for Protestant Christians. Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists—adherents of the religions of the old business and intellectual elite—are still wealthier and better educated than Catholic Christians. This is not the case, however, of the great majority of Protestant Christians, who belong to the Baptist, Evangelical or Pentecostal Churches.

In Nigeria, the strongly Catholic Christian Ibo are arguably more economically enterprising and socially developed than the heavily Protestant Christian Yoruba and the mainly Muslim Hausa.

Again, the relatively more socially developed condition of certain Catholic Christian nations, regions or peoples is not exclusively due to the form of Catholic Christian faith that they hold, though the latter may have been an important factor for the attainment of their level of social development.

Moreover, in the industrialized countries, the terms “Catholic Christian” and “Protestant Christian” take on a more sociological or cultural nuance and less of a religious one, because of the spread of secular humanism and secularism.

8)  Catholic Christian countries do not have a monopoly of mass poverty and social inequality.

If, to some people, mass poverty and social inequality in the Two-Thirds World are synonymous with Catholic Christianity, such an opinion could have arisen because of a narrowing of focus on predominantly Catholic Christian Latin America and the Philippines.  Such a narrowing of focus causes the observer to fail to notice that many other countries aside from the Latin American onescountries which are not Catholic Christian but rather Muslim (Egypt, Pakistan), Hindu (India, Nepal), Buddhist (Myanmar, Sri Lanka), or heavily Protestant Christian (South Africa, Malawi) —are also characterized by social backwardness.

(9) However, Catholic Christianity seems to characterize a relatively large percentage of countries suffering from mass poverty, while a much lesser number of Protestant Christian countries suffer from mass poverty and social inequality.

Nevertheless, a study of geography and history, even if only moderately careful, tells us that this phenomenon is in large part because relatively few countries in the Two-Thirds World are Protestant Christian, while a relatively large number are Catholic Christian.

This came about partly because Spain, Portugal and France, all Catholic Christian, were concerned, from very early in the history of modern colonialism, with evangelizing their colonies, so some of these became predominantly Catholic Christian.

In contrast, the Protestant Christian colonialist countries were relatively late in making corresponding efforts to convert the people of their colonies to Protestant Christianity. Until relatively recently, these Protestant Christian countries were almost exclusively interested in extracting wealth from their colonies.

In Two-Thirds World countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, in which relatively recent Protestant Christian missionary activity has brought about a large number of native Protestant Christians, there is no significant difference in the level of social maldevelopment between Catholic Christian and Protestant Christian communities.

This suggests therefore that it is not the Catholic Christian faith which has brought about or is worsening mass poverty and obstructing social development, but rather other factors, including the colonial or neocolonial manner of development, which is characterized by exploitation of the periphery of the capitalist world by the advanced capitalist industrialized countries, as well as by steady decapitalization of the respective host countries.

(10) The decline of Catholic Christian Spain starting in the middle of the 16th century and its incapacity to compete with then economically expanding Protestant Christian England and the Netherlands may have been not so much due to religion as to other factors. One such factor is an economic one—inflation caused by the massive influx of silver and other precious metal from the Spanish colonies in the New World, which priced products of Spanish industries out of the European market. Another such factor is a demographic one—the dearth of human resources in Spain caused by the massive emigration of some of the most enterprising elements of Spanish society to colonize the Americas.

The Effect on Philippine Social Development of Interaction among Filipino Forms
of Catholic Christianity and Other Religions, Philippine Culture and Philippine History

(1) The predominant form of Catholic Christian faith implanted in the Philippines by the Spanish colonialists was characterized by most of the strengths (such as deep conviction and an eminently public character) but also by the weaknesses (such as clericalism and intolerance) of Spanish Catholic Christianity.  However, because Filipino Catholic Christianity was a colonial derivative of its Spanish model, precisely as colonial it was further distorted by the muting of some of the socially liberating elements, such as patriotism, found in the autonomous Catholic Christianity of Spain. This process of social domestication of Catholic Christianity in the Philippines was fostered in the service of colonization by most of the Spanish colonialist civil and religious authorities, especially in the later periods of the Spanish colonialist regime.

(2) In spite of the socially domesticating distortions in Filipino Catholic Christianity during the Spanish colonialist regime, socially liberating elements of the Gospel message came to the consciousness of the Filipino Catholic Christian masses from time to time and acquired considerable social force, as in many of the revolts against the Spanish colonialist regime, like the Katipunan-initiated Philippine Revolution of 1896.

(3) During times of acute societal crisis, such as during the Philippine Revolution of 1896, World War II, the Marcos dictatorship and the “Erap” Estrada regime, Filipino Catholic Christianity has shown itself capable of effectively motivating large masses of its adherents to heroic struggle for patriotism, justice, liberty and other human and Christian values which favor social development.

However, certain Filipino cultural traits, such as ningas kugon (excessive personalism and inordinate family centeredness), militate against struggle sustained and coherent enough to attain substantial and longstanding success, on the part of Filipinos, whether Catholic Christian or not, on behalf of the above mentioned values favoring social development.

The resulting pattern is one of a struggle for social development, which, because it takes place in fits and starts, is unable to attain its ultimate goals.

(4) Some historical events have also obstructed the realization of the socially liberating potential of Filipino Catholic Christianity.

For example, one precondition for the realization of this liberating potential is the recovery of the public character of Catholic Christianity.

In relation to this, the Philippine Revolution of 1896 was initially characterized by great religious fervor among the Catholic Christian masses, the enthusiastic support of the indigenous Catholic Christian clergy and the beginnings of the emergence of an indigenously directed and patriotic form of Filipino Catholic Christian faith characterized by a strongly public character.

However, starting in the later part of 1898, the increasingly anticlerical character of the leadership and direction of the Philippine Revolution eventually led to a withdrawal of many Catholic Christian personages from the revolutionary struggle, which set in motion a strong tendency to the re-privatization and the loss of public character of Catholic Christianity in the Philippines.

(5) Predominant control over Philippine public institutions by anti-clerical or anti-Catholic elements during the United States colonialist regime and well into the 1950s reinforced the erosion, in the vast majority of Catholic Christians, of the consciousness and practice of the public character of their Catholic Christian faith.  The predominant form of Catholic Christianity narrowed its focus to doctrinal correctness, private morality, religious ritual and defense of the directly institutional interests of the Church, and for a long time overlooked the consequences of Catholic Christian faith for social structures, such as the economic, political and cultural systems of the Philippines and of the world.

(6) The United States colonialist regime introduced a civil ethics into the bureaucracy of the Philippine colonial government, which probably had much to do with the reputed relative efficiency, rationality and honesty of government agencies and officials of those times.  It also tried to propagate this civil ethics through the public school system that it set up.

This effort was not pursued with the force and persistence that would have been sufficient to displace Filipino cultural traits which militate against the common good, such as ningas kugon or excessive personalism and family centeredness.  Moreover, the United States colonialist government tolerated bureaucrat capitalism and rent-seeking behavior among the wealthy Filipino elite who increasingly shared social and political power with the United States colonialist officials. These failures of the United States colonialist regime were in part due to the symbiosis which developed between the United States colonialist regime and the landlord and comprador capitalist families, whether Catholic Christian or not, who were dominant in Philippine society, and many of whom were bearers and practitioners of these socially retrograde traits and attitudes.

(7) Spokespersons of other religions in the Philippines, priding themselves on their claim of the strength of private and domestic virtues among their members, which they say translates into social development, sometimes assert that they have less responsibility for the social backwardness of the Philippines than even their numerically minoritarian situation would indicate.  Some of them would even deny any such responsibility, throwing all the blame for social backwardness on the Catholic Christian Church.

One can ask, however, whether or not in many cases this stress on private and domestic virtues is linked with privatistic indifference to social issues of a structural nature, with resulting reinforcement of the social structures that make for social backwardness in the Philippines.

One can even ask if other religious bodies aside from the Catholic Christian Church have not actively fostered social backwardness in the Philippines by their outright endorsement of, collaboration with and at times, even militant support for socially destructive institutions such as the Marcos dictatorship.

It was not the leaders of the Catholic Christian Church that gave systematic support for tyrannical or grossly corrupt public officials willing to give concessions and favors to certain churches and other religious groups who wanted to advance their narrow sectarian interests at the expense of the common good.

Nor was it the leadership of the Catholic Christian Church that supported conspiracies and even overt actions to overthrow duly constituted and democratic governments installed by such expressions of the morally guided will of the citizenry as People Power I (in 1986) and People Power II (in 2001).

(8) In the aftermath of Vatican II, socially liberating forms of Catholic Christian faith have been steadily gaining strength in the Philippines. Although at present more widespread than before, these socially liberating forms of Catholic Christian faith have not been embraced by a critical mass of the Catholic Christian majority in the Philippines sufficient to effect radical social transformation toward a rational and progressive civil society. This is in part due to the fact that the channels of social communication available to the socially progressive sectors of the Catholic Christian Church in the Philippines are quite underdeveloped.

Still the growing strength of socially liberating forms of Philippine Catholic Christianity gives hope for those who struggle for a just, free and progressive Philippine society.

Summary Statements

(1) Social development is basically a unified concept with many variants.  Such a concept of social development includes the conditions for the all-around and balanced development of each human being, allowing each human being to enjoy an acceptable quality of life, characterized by basic physical and mental welfare, liberty, equality, participation, solidarity and respect for the integrity of creation.

(2) Social development and social backwardness are not exclusively caused by any single factor, such as the kind or form of religion predominant in a given national, regional or local community.  Social development and social backwardness are caused by the interaction of many factors operating in a given community.  Such factors include the culture of the community as well as pivotal historical events and trends, including political ones.  These factors also include the kind of religion predominant in a given community.

(3) A religion, such as Catholic Christianity, may have several distinct expressions in terms of theology and spirituality (distinct ‘forms of faith’).  Some of these may be more congenial to social development, some may tend to hinder it and instead lead to social backwardness, but always in interaction with other socially significant factors, such as culture and historical events. The forms of Catholic Christianity which are congenial to social development are also the most authentically Christian, since they express better the socially liberating and humanizing thrust of the Bible, which is the foundational record of divine revelation for Christianity.

(4) The predominant form of Catholic Christian faith in the Philippines—privatistic, ritualistic and primarily concerned with institutional interests—has been an obstacle to social development.  Some 85% of Filipino Catholic Christians still have this privatistic form of faith.  Its deleterious effect has been reinforced by cultural factors and certain momentous historical events that marginalized socially wholesome forms of Catholic Christianity from public life.

(5) However, in the religious field Catholic Christianity does not have the sole responsibility for retarding Philippine social development. Other churches and religious bodies in the Philippines have shared in socially retrograde attitudes and practices, some even by militantly supporting the tyrannical or corrupt regimes.

(6) The socially retrograde predominant form of Catholic Christian faith in the Philippines is being steadily replaced by a more authentic form of Catholic Christian faith, one which stresses ethics and recognizes and acts upon the public character of Christian faith.  This trend, which is favorable to social development, has not yet reached a critical mass of the Catholic Christian majority in the Philippines sufficient to effect radical transformation toward a socially developed and progressive civil society.  Only 15% of Filipino Catholic Christians have this form of faith with a public or societal character.

However, the fact that the trend exists and continues is a sign of hope for those who long for a Philippine society that meets Gospel standards because it is just, free and progressive.

(7) Summarizing further, Catholic Christianity is neither essentially incompatible with nor necessarily an obstacle to social development. The effect of Catholic Christianity in terms of social development partly depends on the concrete form that Catholic Christianity takes in a given society.

Moreover, religious belief and practice is only one of the factors that make for social backwardness or social progress.  Other factors, such as culture and the economic and political effects of historical events and situations, also contribute to social backwardness and social progress.

The fact that Filipinos are mostly Catholic Christian is not a sufficient explanation for the massive poverty in Philippine society.  At most we can say that the predominant privatistic form of Catholic Christianity, lacking in social awareness and commitment, contributes to the poverty and social backwardness of our country, to a large extent because it tolerates bad governance that perpetuates or worsens poverty.

On the other hand, the growing understanding and practice of a more socially aware and committed form of Catholic Christianity has enabled Filipino Catholic Christians to take leading roles in social reform movements and campaigns, doing much good for and averting worse harm to our country, to a large extent by combating bad governance and by working for good governance that results in the alleviation of poverty.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved