My faith is a remnant of empire. In 1521 Portuguese explorer 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 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.
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.
When Jaime Sin became the Catholic archbishop of Manila in 1974, the Philippines was two years into martial law. Ferdinand Marcos had been president for nine years, and would rule for 12 more. It became apparent to the new cardinal that he would have to make a choice. The flock were being brought to slaughter, prison or exile, or simply disappeared. Democracy could not hold.
I was in primary school in the final years of the dictatorship. I was at university by the time things stabilised. The 1986 revolution and its aftermath probably formed aspects of my faith and politics. It was certainly formative for the modern Philippine Catholic Church.
Cardinal Sin became strident in his critique after the assassination of an opposition senator in 1983. Nuns had already been turning up at labour strikes and street rallies, hoping that their habit and veil would make the police stop short.
A parish safe-house was arranged for vote tabulators, who had walked out upon realising that the presidential election was being rigged. The archbishop went on radio, apparently against Vatican advice, to call on Filipinos to shield two high-ranking security officials from capture after their defection. People came out in tens of thousands along the avenue in front of Camp Crame for four straight days.
The story ends on a miracle. No blood shed, and the Marcos family fleeing in disgrace for Hawaii (less miraculously via transport provided by their friends, Ronald and Nancy Reagan). ‘People power’ entered the lexicon. Cory Aquino, once derided by the dictator as ‘just a housewife’, went on to restore democratic institutions as president. Any number of people can be credited with this outcome, many of whom gambled on their life.
But the archbishop mobilising bodies to protect defecting leaders of an oppressive regime—that speaks to an almost incomprehensible level of power. It is an authority that has ever been expedient or inconvenient to rulers. This has been the case since the time of shamans, since empire. It also demonstrates that religious power is not necessarily self-generating, that it is ultimately drawn from the people.
The Church had only just started carry-ing out Vatican II reforms when martial law was declared. Chief among these was the principle of subsidiarity. ‘Basic ecclesial communities’ were formed in the Philippine provincial south, where people could gather for liturgy, discuss issues and implement solutions themselves. Peasant movements and labour unions worked alongside priests and nuns. Some dioceses had their own radio stations, including Manila-based Radio Veritas.
These all became spaces of resistance, breaking the culture of silence that can paradoxically follow violence. At least three priests were killed in Mindanao; many more lay Catholics were terrorised.
Such conditions are repeated today under President Rodrigo Duterte, who tried to deport a 71-year old Australian nun, following her involvement in a fact-finding mission that looked into human rights abuse in Mindanao. Against the backdrop of tens of thousands dead since Duterte came to power, including three priests, the Archdiocese of Lingayen Dagupan put out a scathing statement. It is addressed just as much to the faithful as to those in power:
Are you still clapping? Are you still laughing? You still find it funny? Are you still saying our people feel safer now? Are you still saying this is the best government we ever had? Is this the change you want? Are these the changes you dream of? If they curse us again for speaking up, we will not
When I read about what happened in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, I recognised the same elements that push Filipino clergy to the front line. There, and in other places in Latin America, Catholic leaders also had to figure out how to live authentically under adverse circumstances.
Fr Rutilio Grande was gunned down by a death squad. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated at the altar. Six Jesuit priests were murdered at their university residence. All of them had spoken out against injustice and conflict. Liberation theology emerged under these circumstances, and reverberated all the way to the Philippines.
It held that sin is not only personal but also social, manifest in the systematic oppression of the poor. Salvation is not reward but work. Dignity is for the living, not the afterlife. Ministry is pastoral, not punitive. This framework reinstated the Judeo-Christian moral foundations of the Catholic Church. It is inextricable from my own faith and sense of what religious power means.
Hard as it may be to imagine, the Catholic Church is still measured in many places around the world as a counterweight to other sources of power: the state, the armed forces and the landowning elite. To borrow the words of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx: ‘The cross cannot be found without the man who was hung on it. It is a sign of opposition against violence, injustice, sin and death; not a sign against other people.’
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 also 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. When the Gillard government announced a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the brief was rightly expanded to include institutions other than the Church. But the attention paid to it was warranted. At the conclusion of the five-year inquiry, the commission found that more than 60 per cent of abuse in religious institutions was attributed to the Catholic Church. Allegations were made against 1880 Catholic figures by 4444 people between 1980 and 2015. These numbers, the ratio, make for a horrific scale.
There are the crimes: the commission made 2575 referrals to authorities including police. The most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with concealing the sexual abuse of children was found guilty last May. Archbishop Philip Wilson was subsequently sentenced to 12 months detention.
Then there is the sting of betrayal, which lingers far more deeply. 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.
It has been harrowing for victims, as well as Catholics who had not been victims, to process just how intensely important it had been for bishops to protect the reputation of their colleagues and friends, the institution itself. In trying to wrest meaning from it, many prominent Catholics such as Archbishop Vincent Long, Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald and Truth, Justice and Healing Council CEO Francis Sullivan pressed a point on clericalism during and after the royal commission.
Clericalism is understood as a culture of control, one that rests on hierarchical notions of authority and holiness. The Roman collar, which only male priests can wear, is privileged. Decision-making is vertical and opaque. The received wisdom is that such conditions may have enabled crimes against children, and definitely facilitated the cover-up. But clericalism must also be understood in external effect, in terms of the standing that the Catholic Church had in the community back then, including its connections to the police and government. It adds a layer of perversion that the only institution with moral force to check excesses of power had its own power left unchecked.
Reputation is a nothing word in context, as if bishops were only averting embarrassment. No, the main concern was about preserving power. Religious power is in part drawn from codes of behaviour, made robust through the lives of the faithful, especially leaders. Priests and brothers sexually abusing children, with nuns facilitating in some cases, jeopardised that equation.
Rather than diffusing power so that parishes and schools could act to protect and support children and their families, bishops—some now dead—exercised power to preserve power. There are fears in the pews even now that those nominally at the top still don’t get it.
It is an acrid shame, and it leaves me enraged, coming as I do from a Catholicism that still has something to say about injustices in this world. The power that the Church can wield, as it did in the Philippines and El Salvador, against forces that oppress human life has been made blunt. Perhaps it falls sharp in certain places, but in mere nicks and notches.
The damage from clerical sexual abuse, along with excesses in similar institutions, seems to make the case that religion is not only cosmetic but toxic. But what if it is more complicated than that? What if people of faith are as corruptible as other kinds of people? What if this requires a more rigorous reckoning with how power functions in and for churches? What if there is then something that could be salvaged?
Christianity is a political construction, in some sense. Its central story is political: a guileless man arrested in the dark of night, tortured and killed by the state through the machinations of a religious class. His followers were a fringe group, radical for their time and persecuted for it. Their disregard for social codes, including the hierarchies that flow from those, was weird and threatening. They seemed to be called to a higher loyalty.
The movement grew despite the odds, its transition from cult to state religion secured in the fourth century by the Roman emperor Constantine, who decriminalised it. Christianity became inextricable from power, exemplified by subsequent papal wars with monarchs, as well as the European colonial period spanning the fifteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This is how Christianity in the West became inextricable from whiteness and, through colonisation, hegemony. In this context, and in the context of modern pluralistic societies, it would be a mistake to take its most fervent figures today as religious warriors by default. They may well be political warriors.
Same-sex marriage, for instance, only really became a contest when the scaffold around marriage shifted from religious terms such as procreation and gender complementarity. The tenuous position of public Christianity can thus manifest in the inverse, in the inordinately vigorous way that beliefs are brought to bear.
On no other question in Australian life have Christians been so ubiquitous and fierce. Catholic politicians such as Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and Barnaby Joyce, as well as the Australian Christian Lobby under Lyle Shelton, were so insistent that by the time the law came to pass, same-sex marriage advocates were spent. A few months later, Shelton joined Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives party, saying that during the campaign he had ‘felt very much drawn to the political side of things, to the partisan side of politics’. It illustrates plainly how a quest of for power can coincide with religious conviction.
Many Christians queer and straight support same-sex marriage. Perhaps it is not entirely religious belief that makes fighters of conservatives, but the erosion of power represented by a less conforming world. Their fear of moral slippery slides might be about their own descent to irrelevance.
It demonstrates how hegemonic assertion can coincide with moralistic language. This does not necessarily require sincere belief, as we can see in ethno-nationalist groups that mine the Crusades. Rather than the Christian ethos of non-violence and charity towards strangers, the historical dominance of Western Christianity becomes its own morality: the definition of what is right and good.
There is a parallel phenomenon in newfound attachment to the Enlightenment era in the more urbane parts of Nazi movements. In other words, Christianity and ‘Reason’—sometimes held as polar opposites—have both been subverted for white supremacist ends. Shared anxieties over diminishing power can make for strange bedfellows.
This has been starkly illuminated in white Christian support for Donald Trump, despite his intellectual and moral vacuity. In some other time when norms meant something, the Christian class might have denounced him on extramarital dalliances alone, as they seem more readily to do over such transgressions than contaminated water and for-profit prisons. Yet they have not.
Trump represents an ascendant whiteness, which in the United States historically overlaps with Christianity. Both markers are in demographic decline, and for those genuinely distressed at the prospect of becoming a minority, the 2016 elections had posed last-chance appeal. White evangelicals were overrepresented at that election, accounting for 26 per cent of voters despite falling to 17 per cent of the general population.
The racial split among American Catholics is also notable. Catholic nativism against newer Catholic immigrants is not a new phenomenon, as the Irish and Italians would tell it, but it found purchase with Trump: 56 per cent of white Catholics voted for Trump, compared to 19 per cent of Hispanic Catholics.
Since the election, white evangelical support has only intensified. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), this favourable view registered at less than 50 per cent in the campaign until it jumped to 61 per cent in September that year. In March 2018 this had climbed to 75 per cent, which is significantly higher than the general population rating of 42 per cent.
Trump does not have to subscribe to white evangelical sentiments; no-one would expect him to be sincere. But his being in the Oval Office infuses their interests with power. Some of them go as far as believing that God put him there. Having a lesser hold on the general population, Trump in turn clutches at white evangelicals to shore up his base.
In May 2018, his administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Christian Zionists, who make up a significant pro-Israel bloc, hailed the decision. More than 80 per cent of evangelicals believe that God gave Israel to Jews, compared to 40 per cent of American Jews. They are also more likely to favour stronger US support of Israel than American Jews. In the context of both ancient and modern anti-Semitism, fervent Christian support of Israel becomes remarkable. It is often read in terms of a belief in prophecy that the reconstitution of Israel along biblical boundaries would herald the end times and the return of Christ. Various polls certainly reflect this belief. But it is again an incomplete picture without a reckoning with power.
The modern state of Israel does not necessarily have to be synonymous with Judaism or Jewish people, though that has arguably become the active project. For a certain type of Christian, it is enough that it is neither Arab nor Muslim, and that it lies isolated in an Arab and Muslim region. Never mind embodied realities, such as Israeli Arabs, Jewish Ethiopians and Palestinian Christians. Israel is a proxy by default in an imagined power struggle against non-Christian forces. Its fate is tied not just to an article of faith but also to white supremacist politics. In useful contrast, black American church ministers more closely observe the parallels between racial segregation and ongoing Palestinian experience.
Ideologies of power intersect with culture and with economics. In April, the most senior Republican in the US House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan, tried to force out the House chaplain, Patrick Conroy (a Jesuit priest). Paul Ryan is Catholic. The circumstances were so spurious that the best guess for a cause involved not misconduct but the temerity to speak truth to power. In a public prayer as the Republicans were about to pass their tax bill, Conroy said: ‘May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.’
This prayer earned Conroy a visit from a Ryan staffer, who told him that he was being too political. Ryan himself reiterated this in a subsequent encounter: ‘Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.’ Conroy withdrew his resignation a week after offering it, when it turned out there was no cause. ‘If you are a chaplain of Congress, you are going to pray about what Congress is doing,’ he told the New York Times.
It is worth adding that the priest had invited an imam to say a prayer on the House floor in late 2017, which disgruntled some members at the time. Non-Catholic Christian responses to the attempted firing included reference to Conroy being ‘pro-gay’, and that perhaps the House ought to have a chaplain who knows what it is like to have a wife and children.
That the last straw might have been reminding Congress about its obligation to struggling Americans—this speaks to the kind of religious power that runs more closely to Christian origins and its revival in liberation theology. It is reflected in the unambiguous condemnation from senior Catholics of the Trump policy of separating babies and children from families at the southern border, and effectively detaining them indefinitely. ‘There is nothing remotely Christian, American, or morally defensible about (it),’ said Archbishop Blase Cupich, following press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ assertion that ‘it is very biblical to enforce the law’. ‘Scripture tells us that God requires no-one to follow unjust laws. It also admonishes us against bearing false witness.’
This is what power on the side of the powerless looks like. It calls to mind something that the novelist Graham Greene said about his ‘purely intellectual’ conversion to Catholicism and how he started ‘feeling’ it in a visit to Tabasco in 1938. He described his faith as ‘bound up with [his] loyalty to the underdog’, who at the time were Catholics in Mexico:
When one has been with believers who suffered for their faith—the Masses said in secret in Chiapas and Tabasco, where there were no longer either churches or priests—this endowed the Church with such grandeur, the fidelity of the believers assumed such proportions that I couldn’t help being profoundly moved. I would compare these worshippers with the polite, little congregation in Chelsea which I sometimes joined and the ladies in hats, and I’d feel that religion was the peasant approaching the altar on his knees, his arms outstretched as though crucified.
Religious power presents a paradox, in that it is most powerful when it is exercised least; it accrues where it is shed. As Marc Gopin points out, ‘The less power organised religion has, the more its clerics, both lowly and powerful, become voices of conscience and enlightenment. The more power they have, the worse they become, and the more their progress is retarded.’
The work of conscience and charity is not power-seeking, which means it gets lost in the fray. What people hear more often instead are the cultural agitations of a white Christian class. The moral authority of the Catholic Church has also been made brittle by the unconscionable choices of generations of men, so even its good works cannot be held up without seeming to be a patch-up.
Whether we like it or not, however, there is still a place for religion, or at least the sort of religion that reaches for the better version of ourselves. Christianity is a repository of some of the values that refine democracy: human dignity, social justice, repudiation of violence. We all—not just believers—lose something when we equate it more readily with a propensity for power than these values.
My own faith is animated by the example of Catholics, living and dead, who drew on a kind of power that this world cannot bestow nor withdraw, and who exercised it against worldly kinds of power. Not for themselves but for others, the ones in whom they saw more subtle glories.
Fatima Measham is a consulting editor and columnist at Eureka Street. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast and tweets as @foomeister.