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My faith is a remnant of empire



My faith is a remnant of empire. In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Cebu, put up a cross and claimed the Philippine islands for Spain. The cross and crown interlock.

Heart-shaped stainI grew up conditioned to think religion was a gift. That was certainly the early account from visiting Europeans, who marvelled at the civilising effects of Christianisation in the north and middle islands, in contrast to an intransigent Muslim south and the animistic highland tribes. Even today Filipinos express gratitude for the comforts of faith. In a country riven by poverty and corruption, what else is there to do but pray?

I suspect that it is this strain of Catholicism that made it easy for Spain to preside over millions of people an ocean away (or two, via Mexico) for more than 300 years. It ennobles suffering; makes endurance holy. This is convenient for both conquistador and padre. The Christian concept of salvation, based on radical human fragility, is an open lever for benign and for malignant hands.

The system of mutual patronage between the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church was not without material benefit for indios, as Filipinos were then called. Missionaries established schools, universities, hospitals and churches, some of which remain today. The Americans would later take or be given credit for Christianising and educating islanders; retroactive justification for their own colonial ambition. But the Spanish had done these.

The picture of occupation is complex. There were abuses by Spanish officials and priests, including those immortalised in the contemporary novel Noli Me Tangere, which eventually led its author Jose Rizal to public execution. But there were also those who tried to protect Filipinos from abuse, such as governor-general Emilio Terrero, who had resisted Church pressure against Rizal, and the Dominican bishop Domingo de Salazar, who clashed regularly with authorities over what he saw as illegal land seizures and forced tributes.

I did not apprehend this complexity until later in life. That it is not morals that imbue religion with power, though that can be resoundingly true in moral context. Rather, religious power, as most people experience it, is the extent to which religious institutions lend themselves to the state, or exercise power for themselves. Marc Gopin, a renowned conflict-resolution scholar and practitioner, put it this way:

'The motivations of religious authorities from ancient times to the present, to engage in suppressions, are just as often of a deeply profane or secular origin. They belong far more in the realm of the struggle for power of some human beings over others, and struggle for the control of material resources.

'The great biblical prophets exposed this over 2500 years ago, pitting themselves against the priests of the time who used ritual and religion to control others, to build their own wealth or that of their kings and benefactors, and to engage in theft, murder, and war.'


"The foremost metaphors of Catholic leadership are relational: the forgiving father, the teacher, the shepherd who would go out of his way to find a single lost sheep. Yet no-one was at the gate when the wolves came."


In other words, the political dimensions of religion are revealed in adversarial circumstances. This holds particularly true when religious institutions detach themselves from the matrix of power that lends them freedom and privilege. It is at this juncture that Catholic leaders, men and women, have made a choice between power and glory.

Many traditions hold that religious power is meant to afflict the powerful and comfort the vulnerable. It is an idea that emanates from the Gospels. That seemed clear enough to me. Yet when I moved to Australia, I found a timid Church seemingly more preoccupied with conserving power than speaking truth to it. This isn't to say that there aren't individuals, parishes or orders of nuns and priests toiling at the furnace of a better world, teaching in remote Indigenous areas, assisting asylum seekers and feeding the homeless. Such things are a matter of course, but also vital and resonant.

However, the more precarious work of leaning into governments about systemic inequality and structural injustice — it says something to me that this is not what people ordinarily associate with the Australian Catholic Church (compared to, say, the Uniting Church). Catholicism in Australia is implicated, as it was in the Philippines, in colonial injustices. Missions were embedded in systems of control: displacement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from ancestral lands, disruption of culture and language, child removals and slavery practices.

This impulse for control is not just historical but ongoing. Politicians identified as Catholic or Christian have implemented cruel immigration policies since federation. They have lately demonised Muslims and Africans. Based on recent measures such as housing and wages, they have worsened life for the poor and the young.

The more indelible and grotesque stain is the sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers, and the subsequent cover-up. The foremost metaphors of Catholic leadership are relational: the forgiving father, the teacher, the shepherd who would go out of his way to find a single lost sheep. Yet no-one was at the gate when the wolves came, nor were any alarms raised when it was found unhinged. The central figure of Christianity had himself been a child, defenceless divine. He admonished his disciples when they tried to keep little ones from being brought to him for blessing. This image is broken, shards like landmines for guiltless priests.



This is an edited extract of 'The Power or the Glory' from Meanjin 77.3 Spring edition, out now from mup.com.au.This is an edited extract of 'The Power or the Glory' from Meanjin 77.3 Spring edition, out now from mup.com.au.

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Catholicism, The Philippines



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Existing comments

Thanks Fatima! It will be interesting to see what changes take place in the Catholic Church in Australia after the 2020 Plenary Council. The Catholic Church needs a model of Church governance based on the separation of powers of governance (legislative, executive and judicial), the principles of transparency, accountability, equality, inclusivity, the two commandments of Jesus, and the active participation of all the People of God, not just the clergy. If this doesn't happen, I think the Catholic Church will continue its decline.

Grant Allen | 13 September 2018  

There is so much I do not know about Spanish Roman Catholic missions in the US. However, I have at least read about the history of those I have visited (as a very old C.of E. priest) - most recently, in July, the Missions at San Francisco, Carmel, and Santa Barbara - earlier at e.g. Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Juan Capistrano, etc. The missions were not identified with the government authorities, and the friars did a great deal for the Indian peoples in their care. One should be not repeat common generalisations too quickly. I might add how heartening it was to attend masses in Los Angeles again this year, in the new cathedral and elsewhere, crowded with worshippers of Spanish and Indian background, fruit of the ministry of the missions.

John Bunyan | 13 September 2018  

Fatima well put, and you are right- innocent priests and religious (who are in the majority) suffer the stain of dishonour brought upon them by the wicked. The religious wolves in sheep clothing have proved far more numerically invasive than anyone dreamt possible and their abuse of the innocents reminiscent of Herod's massacre: Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more." The church is often likened to the body of Christ with Christ as the head and we the members the body. What we are seeing worldwide was promised succinctly by Jesus. "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And yes the historical injustices to the indigenous Australians remain to be addressed.

Frank Armstrong | 13 September 2018  

Fatima, I suspect the experience of my wife, who is from the Illocos region, parallels your own experiences. She was a teacher and Faculty Head at St Louis College , established by the Belgium ICIM Order in San Fernando , La Union . She was educated in their schools and attended St Louis University Baguio for her Masters Degree. I have seen great changes in the Catholic Church in that part of the Philippines on my visits over the past three decades. I have also seen great changes in the Australian Church, at least in the Canberra community . The Hierarchy is respected in the Philippines for being prepared to challenge the politicians there. As you observe they are very timid in this country when it comes to social issues. However for the ordinary Filipino, this seems to count for nought, as they struggle through their daily lives. It is interesting to note that as far as I can ascertain, there have been few or no cases of sexual misconduct by Filipino clergy, at least when compared to Australia or for that matter the US. The clergy are well respected by their communities in the Philippines, again from personal observation. Sadly this is no longer the case in Australia. It is a great shame that the actions of the few, and the negligence of those in authority have led to this sad situation in the Australian Church. I totally agree with Grant Allen that maybe the 2020 Plenary Council is the last opportunity for reform in the Australian Church.

Gavin O'Brien | 14 September 2018  

An interesting excerpt from a longer work that is indicative of not just past causes of present injustices but points out the lack of oomph of the Catholic hierarchy in denouncing Australian Government policies that are plainly immoral and unjust. Perhaps the Australian Bishops have had other pressing matters with which to deal but I am appalled at the lack of persistent criticism that allows our government to hold hostage innocent asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru. Speaking out once is just not good enough: remember the man who knocked repeatedly on his neighbour’s door until the latter rose?

Ern Azzopardi | 14 September 2018  

A thought-provoking essay I must say. It reminds me of an essay topic my European History class was given at a Jesuit college in the 1950s - Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe (Hilaire Belloc 1924). Whether or not it was because we were writing at a time when the faith of Communism seemed to be spreading irrepressibly across Eastern Europe and North Asia or because in the first half of the 20th century Europe had been the battlefield of two horrendous world wars most of the class excoriated Belloc's grandiose generalisation. I cannot encapsulate Fatima's thesis in a memorable phrase. "My faith is a remnant of Empire" doesn't quite do it for me. I see my own personal Catholic faith, received at Baptism in Ulster, Ireland, as having been tested like gold in the furnace of the British Empire. And thanks to my father's blind trust in Archbishop Mannix that faith was transferred after World War 2 to a far-flung corner of that same Empire, namely Australia. I concur with Grant Allen's views that Plenary Council 2020 will be a testing arena for many Catholics in Australia on multiple fronts. Come Holy Spirit of the Great South Land!

Uncle Pat | 14 September 2018  

Thank you Fatima. I was impressed with your insight and gentle respect for the Faith Tradition in the Philippines and the similar traits you have identified here in Australia. You are eloquent in your summary and insightful in identifying the legacy of this power and control in the Church today. Your comments are worthy of further dialogue and reflection in the hope that our Church tradition may emerge as a truly people orientated tradition.

Colin Grant | 15 September 2018  

One would hope that "faith" could remain strong despite colonial religious history. I think Australians would be the most cynical/realistic/sceptical nation when it comes to matters of religion and faith because religion here was also a tool of empire - the first ministers of religion were Anglican chaplains whose job it was to keen the convicts under control - especially the Catholic ones!

AURELIUS | 23 September 2018  

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