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Catholicism in the Philippines

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Catholicism in the Philippines

The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, with its head being the Pope. It is also one of two nations in Asia with a predominantly Roman Catholic population (the other being East Timor), and is the third largest Catholic country in the world (after Brazil and Mexico).[1]

The faith was brought to what is now the Philippines by Spanish missionaries and colonisers, who arrived in waves during the 16th century. Compared to the Spanish Era when Catholicism was the de facto state religion, Christianity in the Philippines today is a mixture of devoted efforts by local people to adapt Roman Catholicism, which sits alongside various other Christian denominations of foreign and local origin. In general, the Philippines has the strongest Christian influence in Asia, and a majority of Filipinos practise the faith in different ways, from the ultra-orthodox, traditional sort, to Folk Catholicism and even Charismatic Catholicism.[2] In 2011, it was estimated that there were 75.5 million of Filipino Catholics, or roughly 80% of the population.


Spanish Era

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain had three major goals for the occupation of the Philippine Islands. One was to colonise the Philippines and participate in the spice trade dominated by Portugal. Second, Spain wanted to use the islands' geographical location to trade with China and Japan and to spread Catholicism to those advanced civilisations, and the third was for Spain to spread Catholicism in the archipelago itself.

While many history books claim that the first Mass in the islands was held on Easter Sunday of 1521; the exact location is disputed. Some books claim that this was done on the same day in a little island near the present day Bukidnon Province. There is only one recorded Christian Mass in the Philippines that is provable, and it was that held at the island-port named Mazaua on Easter Sunday, 31 March 1521. This incident was recorded by the Venetian diarist Antonio Pigafetta.

The Legazpi expedition of 1565 marked the beginning of the Hispanisation of the Philippines. This expedition was an effort to occupy the islands with as little bloodshed and conflict as possible, ordered by Phillip II. Lieutenant Legazpi was in charge of making peace with the natives and through swift military conquest. To do so, he set up colonies.

Under the encomienda system, Filipinos had to pay tribute to the encomendero of the area and in return the encomendero taught them the Christian faith and also protected them from enemies. Although Spain had used this system before, it did not working quite as effectively for the Filipinos as it did in America. The missionaries were not as successful in converting the natives as they had hoped. In 1579, Bishop Salazar and other clergymen were outraged because the encomenderos had abused their powers. Although the natives were resistant, they could not organise into a unified resistance towards the Spaniards due to geography, ethno-linguistic differences, and overall mutual indifference.

Cultural impact

The Spaniards had observed the natives' lifestyle and disagreed with it wholeheartedly. They saw the influence of the Devil and felt the need to "liberate the natives from their evil ways". Over time, geographical limitations have shifted the natives into what are called barangays, which are small kinship units consisting of about 30 to 100 families.

Each barangay had a mutable class system, with any sub-classes varying from one barangay to the next. The patriarchal chieftains were called datus, while the mahárlika were the nobility and the timawa were freedmen. The alipin or servile class were dependent, an arrangement misconstrued as slavery by the Spaniards. Intermarriage between the timawa and the alipin was permitted, which created a more complex, but flexible system of land privileges and labor services. The Spaniards attempted to suppress this class system with their reason being that the dependent class were an oppressed group. Although they failed at completely abolishing the system, they instead worked to use it to their own advantage.

Religion and marriage were also issues that the missionaries of Spain wanted to transform. Polygamy was not uncommon, but only wealthy chieftains had this privilege. Divorce and remarriage were also common as long as reasons were justified. Illness, infertility, or a finding better potential to take as a spouse was justified reasons for divorce. Along with those practices, missionaries also disagreed with the practices of paying dowries, and payment of "bride price" and "bride-service," in which the groom paid his future father-in-law gold or offered labor services before the marriage. Missionaries had disapproved of these because they felt bride-price was an act of selling one's daughter and labor services in the household of the father allowed for premarital relations between bride and groom, which contradicted Christian beliefs.

Pre-conquest religion of the natives consisted of monotheistic and polytheistic cults. Bathala (Tagalog – central Luzon) or Laon (Bisayan – central islands) was the ultimate creator above other inferior gods and goddesses. Natives also worshiped nature and prayed to the spirits of their ancestors to whom they also made sacrifices. Mostly men practiced ritualistic drinking and many rituals performed aimed at cure for a certain illness. Magic and superstition also existed among the natives. The Spaniards claimed to liberate the natives from their wicked practices and show them the right path to God.

In 1599, negotiation began between a number of chieftains and their freemen and the Spaniards. The natives agreed to submit to the rule of a Castilian king and in return, the natives were indoctrinated into Christianity and were protected from their enemies, mostly Japanese, Chinese, and Muslim pirates. However, the missionaries continued to face many difficulties in Christianizing the region.


Several factors hindered the Spaniards' efforts to spread Christianity throughout the archipelago. An inadequate number of missionaries on the island made it difficult to reach all the people and harder to convert them. This is also due to the fact that the route to the Philippines was in itself a rigorous task and some clergy never had the opportunity to set foot on the islands. Some clergy fell ill or waited years for their chance to take the journey. For others, the climate difference once they arrived proved to be unbearable. Other missionaries desired to go to Japan or China instead and spread their faith there, or those who remained were more interested in mercantilism. The Spaniards also quarreled with the Chinese population in the Philippines. The Chinese had set up shops in what was called the Parian or bazaar during the 1580s to trade silk and other goods for Mexican silver. The Spaniards anticipated revolts from the Chinese and therefore, were under constant suspicion of the latter. The Spanish government was highly dependent on the influx of silver and gold since it supported the necessities to run the government in Manila, the main city, and to continue the Christianization of the rest of the archipelago. The most difficult obstacles facing the missionaries were the dispersion of the Filipinos and their seemingly endless varieties of languages and dialects. The geographical isolation forced them into numerous small villages and every other province supported a different dialect.

Religious orders

The Philippines is home to many of the world's major religious congregations, and today these include the Augustinians, Recollects, Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, Salesians, and the indigenous Religious of the Virgin Mary and the Augustinian Recollect Sisters.

The five regular orders who were assigned to Christianize the natives were the Augustinians, who came with Legazpi, the Discalced Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominican friars (1587) and the Augustinian Recollects (simply called the Recoletos 1606). In 1594, all had agreed to cover a specific area of the archipelago to deal with the vast dispersion of the natives. The Augustinians and Franciscans mainly covered the Tagalog country while the Jesuits had a small area. The Dominicans encompassed the Parian. The provinces of Pampanga and Ilokos were assigned to the Augustinians. The province of Camarines went to the Franciscans. The Augustinians and Jesuits were also assigned the Visayan islands. The Christian conquest had not reached the Mindanao province due to a highly resistant Muslim community that existed pre-conquest.

The task of the Spanish missionaries, however, was far from complete. By the seventeenth century, the Spaniards had created about 20 large villages and almost completely transformed the native lifestyle. For their Christian efforts, the Spaniards justified their actions by claiming that the small villages were a sign of barbarism and only bigger, more compact communities allowed for a richer understanding for Christianity. The Filipinos did not face much coercion; the Spaniards knew that rituals were inviting for the natives. The layout of these villages was in gridiron form that allowed for easier navigation and more order. They were also spread far enough to allow for one cabecera or capital parish and small visita chapels located throughout the villages in which clergy only stayed temporarily for Mass, rituals, or nuptials.

Filipino resistance

The Filipinos, to an extent, resisted because they felt an agricultural obligation and connection with their rice fields. They felt that the large villages took away their resources and they feared the compact environment. This also took away from the encomienda system that depended on land, therefore, the encomenderos lost tributes. However, the missionaries continued their efforts to convert the natives to the Christian faith. Their strategy was to take children of the chieftains and put them under intense education in religious doctrines and the Spanish language so that they in turn could convert their fathers and eventually native followers would emulate their leader. Between 1578 and 1609, missionaries saw an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude from the natives there were more converts than ever.

Despite the progress of the Spaniards, it took many years for the natives to truly grasp key concepts of Christianity. In Catholicism, four main sacraments attracted the natives but only for ritualistic reasons, and they did not fully alter their lifestyle as the Spaniards had hoped. Baptism was believed to simply cure ailments, while Holy Matrimony was a concept many natives could not understand and thus had violated the sanctity of monogamy. They were however, allowed to keep the tradition of dowry which was accepted into law. "Bride-price" and "bride-service" were not observed by the Spaniards, but were performed by natives despite labels of heresy. Confession, or Penance, was required of everyone once a year, and the clergy used a bilingual text aid called confessionario to help natives understand the rite's meaning and what they had to confess. They were initially apprehensive to the concept but they gradually used Penance as a way to excuse excessive actions throughout the year. Communion was given out selectively for this was one of the most important sacraments that the missionaries did not want to risk having the natives violate. To help their cause, evangelism was done in the native language. Doctrina Christiana is a book of prayers in Tagalog published in the 16th century.

American period: 1898–1946

During the sovereignty of the United States, the American government implemented the separation of church and state. It reduced the significant political power exerted by the Church and lead to the establishment of other religions (particularly Protestantism) within the country.

After American colonisation of the country, American jurisprudence reintroduced separation of church and state relying on the First Amendment and the metaphor of Thomas Jefferson on the "wall of separation... between church and state"[3] (10), but the Philippine experience has shown that this theoretical wall of separation has been crossed several times by secular authorities. Schumacher states that in 1906, the Philippine Supreme Court intervened in the issue of parish ownership by returning assets seized by the Philippine Independent Church, while certain charitable organizations managed or influenced by the Roman Catholic Church were either returned or sequestered.

The provision of the 1935 Philippine Constitution on religion mimicked the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but the sentences "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall be forever allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights" were appended and this section became the basis for the non-establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the Philippines.[4]


When the Philippines was placed under Martial Law by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, relations between Church and State changed dramatically, as some bishops expressly and openly opposed Martial Law.[5] The turning point came in 1986 when then-Archbishop of Manila Jaimé Cardinal Sin broadcast over Church-run Radio Veritas an appeal for people to support anti-regime rebels. The people's response became what is now known as the People Power Revolution, which ousted Marcos.

Church and State today maintain generally cordial relations despite differing opinions over specific issues. With the guarantee of religious freedom in the Philippines, the Roman Catholic clergy subsequently remained in the political background as a source of moral influence especially during elections. Political candidates still generally court the clergy and other religious leaders for additional support, although this does not guarantee victory.

Internal movements

Catholic Charismatic Renewal

A number of Catholic Charismatic Renewal movements emerged vis-a-vis the Born-again movement during the 70s. The Charismatic movement offered Life-In-the-Spirit seminars in the early days which have now evolved and have different names. These seminars focus on the Charismas or gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some of the Charismatic movements were the Assumption Prayer Group, Couples for Christ, El Shaddai, Kerygma and the Shalom. Charismatic movements profess to be ecumenical, similar to the evangelical and Pentecostal Christians; in fact, many non-Catholic Christians also join this movement. Even though the movement is ecumenical, majority of its adherents are Catholics, in addition, leaders and speakers in these groups are sometimes Catholic priests.

Neocatechumenal Way

The Neocatechumenal Way in the Philippines has been established for more than 25 years. The Neocatechumenal communities number more than 700 and are found all over the Philippines with main concentrations in Luzon (Manila) and the Visayan Islands, especially in Panay, particularly IloIlo province with over 120 communities. This faith-based initiative which centres on rediscovering the Baptism has spread rapidly in the Philippines and has the strongest presence in Asia, and remains to be one of the strongest presences in the World. A Neocatechumenal Diocesan Seminary, known as a Redemptoris Mater Seminary is also present in Manila, as well as many families in mission in many of the Philippine Islands. The Neocatechumenal Way is a reality within the Roman Catholic Church and its efforts are mostly concentrated on evangelization initiatives. It is under the authority of the local Bishop. Membership in the Philippines now exceeds 25,000 persons.

Papal visits


The Catholic Church is involved in education at all levels. It has founded and continues to sponsor hundreds of secondary and primary schools as well as a number of colleges and internationally known universities. The Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, La Salle Brothers-run De La Salle University, and the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomas are listed in the "World's Best Colleges and Universities" in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.[9]

Other prominent educational institutions in the country are Colegio de San Juan de Letran, University of San Carlos, University of San Jose – Recoletos, San Beda College, Saint Louis University, Don Bosco Technical College; and the University of San Agustin.

Political influence

The Catholic Church has great influence on Philippine society and politics. One typical event is the role of the Catholic hierarchy during the bloodless People Power Revolution of 1986. Then-Archbishop of Manila and de facto Primate of the Philippines, Jaime Cardinal Sin appealed to the public via radio to march along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in support of rebel forces. Some seven million people responded in what became known as the 1986 People Power Revolution, which lasted from 22–25 February. The non-violent revolution successfully forced dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos out of power and into exile in Hawaii.

In 2001, an aged Cardinal Sin expressed his dismay over the allegations of corruption against President Joseph Estrada. His call sparked the second EDSA Revolution, dubbed as "EDSA Dos". Estrada resigned at around noon of 20 January 2001, after five continuous days of protest at the EDSA Shrine. His Vice-President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, succeeded him immediately and was sworn in on the terrace of the Shrine in front of Cardinal Sin.

On the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, President declared three days of national mourning, and was one of many dignitaries at his funeral in Vatican City.

Political turmoil in the Philippines widened the rift between the State and the Church. Arroyo's press secretary Ignacio Bunye called the bishops and priests who attended an anti-Arroyo protest as hypocrites and 'people who hide their true plans'. The Philippine Church strongly opposes the Reproductive Health Bill, which is commonly known as RH Bill.[10] The country's populace–80% of which self-identify as Catholic–was deeply divided in its opinions over the issue.[11]

Marian devotion

The Philippines has shown a strong devotion to Mary, evidenced by her patronage of various towns and locales nationwide. Particularly, there are pilgrimage sites where each town has created their own versions of Mary. With Spanish regalia, indigenous miracle stories, and Asian facial features, Filipino Catholics have created hybridised, localised images, the popular devotions to which have been recognised by various Popes. They have generally bestowed blessings through a Canonical Coronation, and Basilica status for the image's principal shrine.

Below are some pilgrimage sites and the year they received a canonical blessing:

Religious observances

Roman Catholic holy days, such as Christmas, Good Friday, etc. are observed as national holidays, with local saints' days being observed as holidays in different towns and cities. The Hispanic-influenced custom of holding fiestas in honour of patron saints have become an integral part of Filipino culture, as it allows for communal celebration as well as serving as a time marker for the year. A nationwide fiesta occurs every third Sunday of January, on the country-specific Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú. The largest celebrations are the Sinulog Festival in Cebu City, the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Aklan and the Dinagyang in Iloilo City (which is instead held on the fourth Sunday of January).

With regard to most holy days of obligation, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) granted dispensation on all the faithful who cannot attend masses on these days, except for the following yuletide observances:

In 2001, the CBCP also approved a reform in the liturgical calendar, which included the Feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Maximilian Kolbe, Rita of Cascia, Ezequiel Moreno and many others in its list of obligatory memorials.

Filipino diaspora

Overseas Filipinos have spread Filipino culture worldwide, and have brought Filipino Catholicism with them. Filipinos have established two shrines in the Chicago Metropolitan Area: one at St. Wenceslaus dedicated to Santo Niño de Cebú, as well as another at St. Hedwig's with its statue to Our Lady of Manaoag. The Filipino community in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has the San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel (New York City) for its apostolate.

Ecclesiastical territories

Main article: List of the Roman Catholic dioceses of the Philippines

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is organized into 72 dioceses in 16 Ecclesiastical Provinces, as well as 7 Apostolic Vicariates and a Military Ordinariate.

Ecclesiastical provinces

Apostolic vicariates

  • Apostolic Vicariate of San Jose de Mindoro (Occidental Mindoro)
  • Apostolic Vicariate of Tabuk (Kalinga and Apayao)
  • Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay (Palawan)


See also


External links

This article incorporates material from the U.S. Library of Congress and is available to the general public.
  • On Religious Freedom in the Philippines by the U.S. Department of State
  • Library of Congress on Friatorcracy
  • The Catholic Church in the Philippines by Giga-Catholic Information
  • Official Website of the Diocese of Libmanan
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