Can Religion Reform Cultures of Corruption? Lessons from the Philippine Catholic Church

During his visit to the Philippines earlier this year, Pope Francis called on the Philippine government to put an end to corruption in the country, and challenged citizens “at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor.” While the Pope’s admonishment may seem like mere rhetoric to some, his call to action may have more significant political implications in a country where nearly 83% of the population identifies as Catholic, and where the Church plays a major institutional role in the nation’s culture and government.

In his 2010 piece “’Good News’ in the Fight Against Corruption,” and more recently in a June 2014 working paper on systemic corruption, Professor Roberto Laver highlighted the role religion plays as a cultural force in society, which in turn may impact how societies respond to corruption in government. Religion can affect ethical behavior in obvious ways, but it can also affect how public power and authority are arranged within society. Professor Laver argued that religion, which is often overlooked as a resource for anticorruption efforts, should be used as an “entry point” for a “second generation of reforms” to battle entrenched cultures of corruption.

Assuming Professor Laver is correct that religious institutions are not playing a large enough role in anticorruption efforts worldwide, the Philippine Catholic Church may be an exception to that rule. The Church has been at the center of numerous political debates for decades, and, if the Pope’s speech earlier this year is any indication, it will continue to play a major role in issues involving development, poverty, and corruption. The Philippine example highlights the essential role an institution like the Catholic Church can play in addressing systemic corruption. And by the same token, it demonstrates the costs that come with entrusting that power to religious institutions and leaders.

The Philippine Catholic Church is a major force in the nation’s culture and government. The Church was instrumental during the People Power Revolution of 1986, when it used its radio station, Radio Veritas, to encourage citizens to join a massive non-violent protest that ultimately brought an end to the 20-year reign of President Ferdinand Marcos. Since that era, the Church has remained a formidable force in politics. In 2001, the Church played a pivotal role in removing another President—Joseph Estrada—by non-violent protest after he was accused of graft and plunder. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is extremely influential in politics, and is often consulted on issues of national policy. Government officials are acutely aware of the deference they owe to religious leaders, and often allow their allegiances to affect legislative decisions (see, for example, here and here). Others, including the President, may risk excommunication if their policies stray from religious principles.

The Philippine experience demonstrates the enormous potential religious institutions have as “entry-points” for anticorruption reform:

  • First, the Church has the ability to frame corruption as a violation of a higher moral standard. In 2001, the Archbishop of Manila stated that the plunder charges against President Estrada demonstrated that he had lost moral authority to govern, thus framing his acts as a violation not just of legislation, but of God’s law.
  • Second, because Catholicism is so prevalent and religious leadership so centralized, the Church can encourage broad participation in anticorruption efforts. As the former president of the University of the Philippines, Francisco Nemenzo, once remarked, “without Radio Veritas it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize millions of people in a matter of hours.” The Church also holds influence over politicians and officials who cannot risk losing the support of the Catholic vote.
  • Third, religious leaders can advocate for reforms regularly, and at a more local level. Notwithstanding the strength of the centralized CBCP, local churches also wield a great deal of power over their respective communities. They are able to shape attitudes through weekly or even daily sermons. The Church served this role during the martial law era, when local priests became some of the staunchest opponents of the Marcos regime.

However, empowering religious institutions to influence governance can be dangerous. Consider some of the negative effects demonstrated by the Philippine experience:

  • Lack of political foresight. Because the church is not a political institution, its influence may have unforeseen effects, particularly when it circumvents the political process through revolution. For example, religious leaders active during the 2001 revolution later apologized for their role in handing over power to President Arroyo, who herself proved very corrupt.
  • Separation of Church and State. Politicians have mostly ignored the constitutional problem created by the Church’s influence. The Philippine Constitution, modeled after the U.S. Constitution, contains a version of an Establishment Clause (Art. III, § 5), and an outright policy of separation of church and state (Art. II, § 6).
  • Marginalization of other religions. Allowing one religious institution to exercise such control over politics may marginalize the interests and values of the minority, or even the less prominent sects within the dominant religion.
  • Corruption within the church. Given the church’s power and influence, members of the church may themselves be corruption risks. In 2011, a government audit revealed that high-ranking church officials had received kickbacks and cars from President Arroyo in exchange for political support.
  • Influence over other agenda items. While the Philippine Church has made incredible strides in the realm of anticorruption, its political agenda has also held back important legislation in the areas of reproductive health and divorce.

So, while Professor Laver may be right that religious institutions can play a significant role in combating systemic corruption, in the case of the Philippines, there must be some consideration of how to best harness the positive elements of that influence, and cabin the negative effects. With both those goals in mind, here are some suggestions for how to fine-tune the role of the Philippine Catholic Church in anticorruption efforts:

  • Adopt explicit moral principles relating to anticorruption. The Philippine Catholic Church could do more to characterize corruption as an egregious violation of religious principles, even going so far as to preach a zero-tolerance policy for politicians, as it has sometimes done on issues like abortion.
  • Engage with the political process rather than circumventing it. Religious leadership should focus more on anticorruption advocacy at the front end, i.e., during elections, rather than unseating politicians at the back end. Church leaders could stimulate discussions about proactive efforts to institute anticorruption reforms, and throw their weight behind candidates concerned with real change. This could not only help to reduce the unintended consequences of political overthrow, but also bolster the Church’s role in encouraging legitimate practices, rather than merely condemning those who had the misfortune of getting caught.
  • Tighter controls over the Church’s influence over politicians. The Church should be subjected to periodic audits to guard against institutional corruption. But NGOs and activists should also attempt to limit the Church’s power by bringing more constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court, which has lately been more willing to veer from strict Catholic ideals. In particular, it should target religious leaders’ direct influence over policy. Anticorruption efforts, if they have widespread support, could survive as reflecting popular will, while the Church’s efforts to block progress in reproductive health and divorce law, which are not supported by most, could be stopped if they violate constitutional principles.

5 thoughts on “Can Religion Reform Cultures of Corruption? Lessons from the Philippine Catholic Church

  1. Excellent to put this question on the anti-corruption agenda. I can’t remember the Georgian Orthodox church ever making a statement about corruption.

    One “negative effect” that could be added is that any church, by definition, is not a democratic actor, as it draws its legitimacy from God rather than from the people. It can be a positive and legitimate anti-corruption voice, but there may be a trade-off involved in terms of democracy. After all, there’s rarely enthusiasm in the West when Islamic leaders call for moral purification, foment revolution and declare corrupt government leaders to be infidels – even though the underlying logic is much the same. Once you’ve used the Church to get rid of the dictator, how do you rid politics of the Church?

  2. Bea, this is very interesting and I also agree with what Till’s comment. There is certainly a long history of the church becoming quite involved with politics. With corruption in particular, I wonder if the Church’s strongest power could be in the form of social capital and the shaping of community that make people feel strong enough together to stand up to corrupt actors.

    The blog has often discussed the role that education, especially education of children, can have in breaking the culture of corruption. I wonder if that’s a module the Church could add to Sunday school instruction?

    You mention that the possibility of corruption also exists within the church, and it’s probably good to remember that the Protestant Reformation occurred in large part due to Church corruption (I know, I know, it’s cheating to count something that happened 500 years ago. But still good to keep in mind).

  3. Beatriz, this is a very interesting and convincing article. I also agree with Till’s comment on the fact that Church being a religious institution might cause issues relating to democracy.

    In addition, although involving the Church in the fight against corruption could be efficient on many levels, boundaries are essentials in order not to tie excessively legal reform and moral considerations. Indeed, even if moral principles are often underlying laws, defining and regulating criminal offenses such as corruption with moral concepts can be dangerous, inter alia in terms of interpretation of the law and legal certainty.

    A similar argument is used by opponents to procedural or strategic aspects of anticorruption campaigns. Ideological confusion between moral, economics and Rule of Law should be avoided and a too broad involvement of a religious authority in legal reform on corruption could lead to such confusion. Using the Church’s influence would be an efficient channel to support a reform on corruption if the democratic authorities are vigilant to rely on economical concepts and defense of Rule of Law, rather than on moral and religious concerns.

    The issue would be to determine to what extent religion could get involved without crossing the line where moral would trump law.

  4. “And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.'” – Luke 3:14

    Beatriz, your reference to the Pope Francis’s excommunication threats reminds me of when he excommunicated the Scalian mafia in 2014. The Scalian mafia were (are) known for co-opting Catholic symbolism, contributing to the Catholic church, and taking an active role in religious ceremonies. It was not uncommon, for example, for religious ceremonies to stop outside the homes of powerful local bosses. In fact, members of the mafia apparently drew a meaningful distinction between sin and crime and used the Catholic culture of forgiveness as a license to engage in bad behavior. (Some priests even endorsed this distinction).

    I think the church’s undeniable role as a moral force means it has to have at least some role in combating corrupt actions. Otherwise, religion may be used to excuse or even endorse corrupt behavior. Till’s caveat about the church’s involvement being democracy constraining is well taken. But if the church reduces corruption, it is likely to be democracy enhancing — at least to a point. As Sarah said, we just have to figure out where to draw the line.

    Beatriz, I’m intrigued by your idea of using the courts as a constraint on the church’s involvement in politics. How would those lines be drawn to distinguish between acceptable influence (anti-corruption) and unacceptable influence (health and divorce law)? Just that both types of involvement might be restricted, but that only one would be challenged? Or that both would be restricted, but anti-corruption would survive to be implemented because of popular support?

  5. Beatriz, thanks for a great discussion of some of the dynamics of morality at play here. While the Church’s political influence is currently enjoying increased popularity under the leadership of Pope Francis, personally I am somewhat hesitant to be optimistic about the its influence in the fight against corruption — at least not according to a top-down, executive leadership model of change. Rather, political priorities within the Catholic Church tend to be highly varied and highly contested. Additionally, as noted above, religious institutions cannot exist in a vacuum and will share many of the challenges of the community in which they serve. In a country with high rates of corruption, inevitably there will be at least some Church leaders who are involved — as you describe regarding the most recent scandal.

    I agree that local churches will be where the influence lies. Pope Francis has appreciably set a tone and a policy objective. While not all Catholics in the Philippines may follow his call, no doubt some will be listening and advocating accordingly. But unless corruption actually feels like a wrong rather than a necessity, a religious decree will probably have limited influence. Because I view corruption primarily as a symptom of governance failures and poverty, religion seems very much a secondary factor.

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