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Decline of religion, Catholicism in the Philippines

A WATERSHED has occurred in my generation: religion is now on a steep decline, especially Catholicism whose culture and worldview have dominated this country since the Spanish conquistadores subjugated this archipelago nearly 500 years ago.

And it is during what we call the Holy Week that it becomes obvious that Catholicism is on the way to extinction as a system of beliefs, although many will still cling to its cultural aspects, as there are yet no replacements — weddings, baptism, and even house or office blessings. It is also during Holy Week that one feels religion as still fighting for dear life, as in several newspapers’ closure from today till Sunday.

In my youth Holy Friday to Easter Sunday really did feel as if the entire world is mourning the death of God (an absurdity which I found inexplicable) and you can watch on TV only the always-shown-on-Holy-Week “Ten Commandments,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” with “Ben Hur” the most exciting. Now of course hallelujah you can watch nearly whatever movie or series you want through Netflix and other streaming services.

Just three years ago the Pabasa two blocks from our home kept me awake for several nights. That practice ended with the passing away of the elderly man who financed it. That is one of the reasons for the decline of Catholicism, the old religious generation is passing away, and the new ones aren’t really interested in religion.

Before, only the rich would escape the cemetery-like ambience of Holy Week who troop to their Baguio residences or abroad. Now, I bet more than half of families that can afford it see Holy Week as a grand vacation time in some beach or hill resort. Golf courses are crowded. As late as the 1980s, absolutely no mall nor movie theater was opened during Holy Friday. Now only a few are closed on that day.

Opinion poll surveys, most of which report about 50 percent of Filipinos as religious, grossly underestimate the decline of Catholicism here, of course as most are still reluctant to report that they aren’t really practicing Catholics any more.


Just go to any Church on Sundays, and they are becoming only half-full at most. If surveys show Filipinos are still practicing Catholics, it is because most of them are poor and desperate to get a boon from a Deity that they think can give them what they want — a job abroad, a winning lotto ticket, remission from cancer. A TV interviewer interviewed a “devotee” in the Black Nazarene procession years back: “The first time I joined the procession, I got my wish for a Tamaraw FX. This year I’m wishing for a Pajero.”

It was the Church hierarchy itself which debauched Catholicism, when it indulged in politics, its leaders, especially Jaime Cardinal Sin, getting drunk over the huge role they played in toppling Marcos, and then, Estrada.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo broke that streak, when she angrily told Cory Aquino, who claimed that Cardinal Sin wanted her to step down in that tumultuous “Hyatt 10” year of 2005: “Even if the pope asks me step down, I won’t: my responsibility is to this country.” Many Filipinos had been turned off when activists, even leftist priests turned their pulpit into political soapboxes, and there have been many reports of church-goers leaving the church when such priests did so.

I suspect Covid-19 awakened Filipinos: even after at least a year of missing Sunday Mass because of the lockdowns, they discovered they still lived normal lives, and many felt they could go without the transportation expense and hassle of going to church. Covid-19’s impact on the decline of Catholicism has been underestimated: priests proved to be totally useless in the fight against that contagion of nearly biblical proportions. Saint and sinners, the virus didn’t differentiate. So what’s the use of religion?


One of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s most important legacies is his demystification of the Catholic Church. He is the first Philippine president ever and political leader of note, to take on the Church, and to show his disdain for it. He minced no words in a speech in January 2017: “You are in palaces while your faithful are in squatter areas and then you talk about sanctity? What is your moral ascendancy in the Philippines?” Religion? What is the meaning of it?”

“I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of s**t. You all smell bad, corruption and all,” the then president said. Nobody but only the kind of person Duterte is could have spewed such vitriol on the Church.

Duterte certainly trod on very dangerous ground in challenging, even insulting the Catholic Church, yet going by his 88 percent popularity ratings during his entire term, and even after it, Filipinos didn’t at all take it against him, and maybe even believed him. Not a few were even delighted at Duterte’s tirades against the Church.

However this set of superstitious beliefs we call Catholicism will still linger on for more than a century hence, especially since it is one of the richest organizations on this planet, and has even has a state, the only such religious entity with a permanent observer status at the United Nations.


Moreover, confronting one’s beliefs developed since childhood is not for the faint of heart, as this jolts him to the realization of an uncaring cold, universe, and that this life is all there is, and there’s no magical territory one migrates to after death

Indeed, most Filipinos choose, whether they realize it or not, to have as their mindset throughout their lives what is called Pascal’s Wager (which that 17th century philosopher and mathematician formulated): “If you believe in God, and He exists, you will be rewarded in heaven. And if he doesn’t exist, you won’t know about it, so it is best to believe in God.”

We are the first generation of humankind to have the intellectual tools, and the vast information accumulated by civilization for two thousand years, that could be employed to determine what are superstitious beliefs (made by pre-scientific peoples to make sense of the universe) and what are not, using logical, data-based processes we call the scientific method.

It is the same scientific method — in certain disciplines called anthropology, linguistics and comparative religious studies — that has been employed to examine, starting in the 19th century, what people for centuries believed were divine revelations written by the Deity’s ghost-writers, the Bible and the Quran for example. Ancient documents have been even unearthed in the 20th century that shed light on the very human origins of these

Four horsemen

In my college years, the only book on atheism I could find was Bertrand Russel’s Why I am not a Christian. Now, best-sellers, in inexpensive paperback, are the very well-written and very convincing books of the so-called four horsemen of the atheist awakening (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett).

One of the most uninformed, yet prevalent views is that Christianity can’t be wrong as it has survived for more than 2,000 years, despite its persecution. That is so totally wrong. Christianity is one of the main religions of the world now, because it was the state religion of the most powerful civilizations the world has seen, Europe. It wasn’t a choice of the vast population of peasants whether to believe in Jesus or not; they had to, or else.

We have entered a secular world, and there’s no going back. The big problem is how to raise our children and grandchildren, in this new world, for them to be able to find meaning and moral compass without heavens and hells, without a Holy Week.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    Membership in a religious organization or church does not define salvation but ones relationship with the true God Himself. Some religious leaders are simply concerned with numbers attending their church but Jesus once said His kingdom is not of this world. We are in the world but not of the world. That is what I remind my children and grandchildren-live the life as taught by Jesus no matter how or what the non-believers tell you.

  2. Cathy Santiago

    “We have entered a secular world, and there’s no going back. The big problem is how to raise our children and grandchildren, in this new world, for them to be able to find meaning and moral compass without heavens and hells, without a Holy Week.”

    I think there should be no problem to be concerned about for future generation if the current generation makes all effort to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to heed His instruction, “do this in remembrance of me”. Meaning to live out the life of a disciple and servant in all areas of one’s life.

    The problem exists when people only write, sing, talk, call out, express what they observe, giving only the imperfect view of past sinful actions but leaving out the positive personal encounters and conversions that have inspired and moved countless souls to change from immoral to moral. These people create this problem themselves because they present these existing “ideas” or current situation but never gives out something like a guide on what to do or how to overcome or solve these problems. These intellectual people stir other’s mind with an incomplete and senseless picture but leaves others hanging and letting them grope for answer or understanding thus misleading them to believe in their own personal conclusion.

    Whether we are technologically advanced, living in a secular world with so many choices, this problem has never been different during the time of Jesus. Oppression, corruption, greed, abuse of power and authority, intellectuals and learned speaking freely while shunning those who are not, endless choices has been there in His time. The Jews lived out their lives according to religious practices. And this was what Jesus wants corrected. He did not totally abolish religion and all the tradition but rather corrects the mindset and how the people should practice it – with truth and genuine love. He renewed the church. He still did participate passover tradition but this time he became the actual passover meal. Should we not be remembering what He did?

    If we commemorate a day for our brave heroes why not His life and the very selfless act that He did?

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