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My faith is a remnant of empire

  • 13 September 2018
  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.

I 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