BusinessWorld, 27 February 2012

A view becoming widely accepted is that a country’s economic and social malaise can be attributed in no small measure to its dysfunctional institutions. This applies to our country’s two overarching institutions, Church and State, constitutionally separate but with interests and acts that often intersect. Deep reforms in both institutions bogged down by misgovernance are called for if the country is to move to a path of sustained economic and social progress.

Reform of the Church is the subject of an award-winning book – As It Was in the Beginning: the Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2007) – by Robert McClory, a former theologian-church historian and currently professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. His thesis is that the early church was actually democratic, participative and listening-to-the-laity and not the centralized, hierarchical and autocratic institution that it is today; reform merely entails that the church revert to what Jesus Christ himself intended it to be.

Several biblical passages substantiate the belief that Christ wanted the church to be non-authoritarian, consultative, and compassionate. He told his apostles and disciples to be servant leaders: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark, 10:43-45).

Such apparently was the paradigm that guided the early church. Thus St. Cyprian, then bishop of Carthage in North Africa (248-258) – whose leadership style was also that of then Pope Cornelius in Rome – writing to his impatient clergy, says: “I can make no reply on my own, for it has been a resolve of mine … to do nothing on my own private judgment without your counsel and the consent of the people” (McClory, p. 42).

Subsequently, under Emperor Constantine in 313, there was the great controversy about which was the correct creed: whether Jesus is of the same (Nicene) or similar (Arian) substance as God. After years of protracted and bitter debates and despite the weight of virtually the entire hierarchy that mostly favored the Arian belief, the Nicene creed was upheld at the Council of Constantinople in 381. But this could not have happened if not for the predominant majority of the laity who would not yield otherwise, according to On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine by John Henry Newman, arguably the most influential theologian in the 19th century. Newman contends that it is a big mistake when decisions on matters of doctrine, even dogmas, are arrived at without regard to the sense or even agreement of the faithful.

The practice of consulting the ‘sense of the faithful’ or of taking seriously the old Roman adage, “What touches all must be approved by all,” was largely followed in the first millennium. A major shift occurred at the start of the second millennium with Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), the central figure of Gregorian Reform, according to McClory, that set the church on a different path (reinforced by Pope Pius X’s (1903-1914) Oath Against Modernism) that extends to today.

Notes McClory: “Most history books find the origins of modern democracy in the writings of 17th century philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Their contributions were indeed significant, but there is clear evidence that the origins of these modern ideas can be found in the insights if the Catholic decretists and canonists some 400 years earlier” (p. 71). He then quotes Brian Tierney, the prolific historian of the medieval world: “The practices of representation and consent that characterize secular constitutional government are not alien to the tradition of the church. And if in the future the church should choose to adopt such practices to meet its own needs in a changing world, that would not be a revolutionary departure but a recovery of a lost part of the church’s own early tradition” (p. 71).

An attempt at such a recovery was made with the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII (1958-1965) under Vatican Council II to bring back the church’s early tradition of openness, servant leadership, participation of and consultation with the laity. But this fell by the wayside with his untimely demise seven years later. Thus, in the third millennium, the Catholic Church  appears to be where it was around the start of the second millennium.

The Church today remains top-down, authoritarian, and dismissive of the voice of the laity. This is particularly so in the Philippines where the laity prefer to stay silent and be seen as submissive to Church authority. A case in point is reproductive health/family planning which the dominant majority of Filipinos have consistently favored, albeit anonymously, via repeated surveys but would rather be mum about it in public. Similarly, as regards the pending divorce bill that would also benefit the poor who have great difficulty obtaining annulment that can however be easily resorted to by the rich.

Still another important example is clergy sex abuse which is widely condemned but is kept under wraps by the ‘culture of silence’ in deference to Church authorities (which, incidentally, helps in the cover-up), as well as the ‘culture of shame’ to protect one’s honor and dignity, according to Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle at a recent conference in Rome. Further, the Church often infringes into territory outside its competence, such as judicial TROs on economic and political concerns, or the issue of mining, stem cell research, and bioengineering.

The Church, moreover, appears to give inordinate importance to external rites or religious services that seem to be taken by many as a convenient make-up for failings in secular morality or plain upright conduct. McClory says: “Although Jesus does not condemn Mosaic law, he goes out of his way to show his disdain for those who keep the outward aspects of the law but have no regard for its internal meaning” (p. 23). Said Christ: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28).

It turns out that the kinds of reforms required of the Church apply virtually equally to the State. For participation, openness, accountability, and servant leadership after all constitute  the very essence of true democracy. For instance, in the case of the judicial system – akin to the Church’s emphasis on rituals – too much attention is given to form, procedure and technicality such that the substance or internal meaning of the law (which ‘was made to serve man’, not vice-versa) gets lost. Which is poignantly exemplified by the tedious, often frustrating proceeding in the impeachment trial of CJ Renato C. Corona. Not to mention the hypocrisy that surfaces in bold relief and resonates eerily with the ‘whitewashed tombs’.

Sans structural reforms, the Church will likely continue to alienate its faithful as it drifts towards irrelevance, while the State watches idly the economy missing its development potential.