Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Beyond the Cross and the Sword: Growth and Decline - Essays on Philippine Church History


Reviewed by Paul Lee

John Schumacher S.J. Growth and Decline: Essays on Philippine Church History; Ateneo de Manila University Press; 291 pages.

Ever since the first mass at Limasawa was held on the shores of what is now Cebu half-a-millennium ago; Catholicism in the Philippines has have both had its share of changes accompanied by the usual myths.

Of course, many of the myths surrounding the Catholic Church in the Philippines often leaned from the simplistic to the outright negative; the latter brought by the political movements of the later half of the 19th century aiming at the abuses of both Spanish governance and the role of the Church. For many laypeople including the writer of this piece, a first read of Fr. John Schumacher’s Growth and Decline may both provide new insights into the role of the Catholic Church and the changes that shaped its role in the Philippines.

Basically a collection of historical essays written and compiled both by Schumacher et al Growth and Decline is a detailed chronicle of the Catholic Church in the Philippines not as the monolithic ecclesiastical instrumentality familiar with many local laypeople but initially an institution struggling with growing pains in its evangelization of the islands before transforming into a decrepit establishment fearful of change.

The first chapters are focused on both the evangelisation and consolidation of the Church’s role in the Philippines. One central myth was the relationship between the ecclesiastical and royal authorities. Contrary to the myth of the Cross and the Sword collaborating in the subjugation of the islands, the Church did not exactly enjoy a smooth relationship with the Spanish government in the Philippines during the early years of Spanish rule given its desire to win souls; it had to shield the native population from the excesses of the authorities. In spite of its outreach, the Church had to also contend with the issue of racial prejudice then prevalent amongst both the Spanish rulers and the religious authorities especially on education and the
native clergy.

Likewise there was the infighting amongst the respective religious orders as well as between the orders and the secular sometimes leading to closures of institutions and the occasional backsliding of converts to paganism and syncretism. Thus, the Catholic Church had its share of rough times during its early years in the Philippines. If the nascent years in the Philippines saw the challenges of the Catholic Church in the evangelization of a nation; the latter phase saw it struggling to stay relevant as factors from both within and without play from the influx of liberal ideals brought by the French Revolution to the increasing restiveness of the local clergy and intelligentsia culminating in the upheavals of the latter quarter of the 19th century. Inevitably those selfsame social upheavals had greatly contributed to some of the myths surrounding the Catholic Church in the country and the collection of essays by Schumacher et al certainly provided new
insights into the Church and its relation with the Philippines.

(Paul Lee is a freelance writer. He is currently finishing his master's degree in Creative Writing at U.P. Diliman).

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