How Do We Study the Religious Orthodoxy of Filipino Catholics?

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Do Filipino Catholics know exactly their official Church doctrines? How do we measure Catholic religious orthodoxy?

The Philippines is the largest and oldest of the two Catholic countries in Asia. But the pastoral problem of the “unchurched” or unorthodox Catholics continues to persist in the Church. This problem has often been mentioned in theological articles, debates, and local Church councils, and acknowledged by the hierarchy of bishops of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

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Owing to the lack of catechism and religious personnel to teach religious doctrines to millions of Catholics throughout the country and the growing secularization of Philippine society, it is assumed that more and more baptized believers are now becoming folk and unorthodox in their religious beliefs, especially on the Church’s official teachings and dogmas. Many baptized Catholics in the remote Province of Dinagat Island, for instance, who are members of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries of the Philippines (PBMA), believe that their founder and divine master, Ruben Ecleo, Jr., is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and therefore God.

The perception of declining doctrinal orthodoxy of Filipino Catholics, is however unsupported by facts and scientific research. There were some religiosity research studies done by some social scientists in the past (e.g. De los Reyes & Abad 1994; Abad 2001; Cornelio 2010; Bautista 2010). Unfortunately, none of them had addressed the issue of  the doctrinal unorthodoxy of Filipino Catholics.

Limitations of Current Religious Orthodoxy Research

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Despite the perception of doctrinal ignorance of  many lay Catholics in the Philippines, no qualitative and sociological research has been done to directly investigate this phenomenon. Empirical research which deals with religious orthodoxy, particularly knowing the degree of conformity of the personal doctrinal beliefs to certain Church’s doctrines, such as the doctrine of salvation, has been sidelined in the past. Studies that directly deal with religious orthodoxy among Christians are mostly correlations that deal with moral issues (e.g. racial discrimination, inequality, contraception, homosexuality, or women ordination).

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More recent treatments of religious orthodoxy which are traceable to the work of Wuthnow (1988) and Hunter (1991) are of this kind. Current research on religious orthodoxy also measures religious orthodoxy in terms of peoples’ agreement to some Church beliefs and their attitudes towards contemporary moral issues (Davis & Robinson 1996; D’Antonio et. al 2001). Moreover, some studies measure religious orthodoxy in terms of religious authority and the immutability of morality. Thus, Catholics who follow the external moral authority and teaching of the Church and see morality as immutable and transcendent are considered orthodox, while those who follow their individual authority or conscience and see morality as evolving are considered less orthodox and are called progressive (Hunter 1991; Davis and Robinson 1996).

The Inadequacy of Measuring Moral Orthodoxy

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But measuring religious orthodoxy in terms of the Christians' attitude towards a broad range of moral issues vis-à-vis the Church moral teachings can be inadequate in the Catholic Church tradition. Moral orthodoxy is only one side of the coin in Catholic orthodoxy, not the 'head’ but the ‘tail’ so to speak in the Church’s intricate and complex belief system. The Catholic Church has a hierarchy of truths in its doctrinal teachings since beliefs vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith (CCC #90). In the Catholic Church, religious beliefs can be generally classified into two: those that deal directly with Church doctrines and those that deal with morals or application of these doctrines. In the Church’s teaching, faith and morals are inseparable dimensions of orthodoxy, thus the idea of orthopraxis: that true faith or correct doctrinal beliefs should be lived out in correct moral action (CFC #15). However, if one is to choose which of these two types of beliefs must be the object of study Catholic religious orthodoxy, then beliefs on the doctrines of faith must be preferred. In general, the Catholic Church may be considerate with regard to the disagreement of believers with moral precepts but not with doctrinal teachings about the Christian faith.

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Moral pronouncements of the Church are, therefore, considered less definitive teachings, subject to historical refinement owing to the evolving nature of moral circumstances compared to infallible doctrines that directly relate to the Christian faith. In fact, disagreeing with the official doctrinal beliefs that directly relate to the Christian faith such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ is more condemned by Church authorities than disagreeing with moral prescriptions such as those that deal with contraception, the ordination of women or homosexuality.

Thus, doctrinal orthodoxy is a more reliable indicator of religious orthodoxy than moral orthodoxy in the Catholic Church tradition. Therefore, if one aims to measure the Catholic religious orthodoxy, the focus must be on the conformity of the Catholics' doctrinal beliefs to the official teachings of the Church. And the object of the analysis must center on the dogmatic teachings of the Church on the Catholic faith such as the doctrine of salvation.

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