The Role of the Church in Times of Crisis
Volume 21 Number 1
Tuesday, 24 November 2009 13:37

Spirituality and Human Rights
by Sr. Maria Cecilia Bayona, AMP

In most instances, the selection of a topic for discussion, a dialogue, or a forum is never chosen out of mere fancy or sheer impulse.  They do not emerge ex nihilo; neither are they formed out of a vacuum.  For they are, most often than not, reflections of a prevailing social or organizational context.  They, in turn, contain antimonies and implications that demand resolution through the collective efforts of people who are most likely to be affected.

The theme of today’s discussion is no exception.  In fact, our chosen theme, The Role of the Church in Times of Crisis: Spirituality and Human Rights, is not only significant, but is also both pressing and demanding. The topic revolves around the notion of crisis, and this I believe is apt and timely, now that this word has often been used by the mainstream media to describe our nation’s current political predicament, especially after the emergence of the “Hello, Garci” scandal.  But the use of such term can also invite controversy, for the word “crisis” is charged with various meanings and is often laced with different levels of interpretation.

For today’s discussion, I shall use crisis in a more holistic sense, defining it as a situation that is brought about by humanity’s deliberate attempt to sever his relationship with God and with the human community that Our Lord has created and blessed, in exchange for the pursuit of individual interest and personal gratification.

A crisis, therefore, always has a spiritual dimension; for it occurs when we, as human beings, turn away from the way of the spirit and heed instead the stirrings of the flesh.  By selfishly following our individual desires, we in turn repudiate the human community (which may be described as the brotherhood and sisterhood of all God’s children), which our Lord has intended for us.

The importance of this human community was emphasized by Christ himself with his reply to the query of one of the Pharisees regarding the greatest commandment in the Law: “’ Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22: 37-40)

Hence, a crisis, though spiritual in origin, tends to have social implications, which further affects the political and economic dimensions of human life.  Instead of a community that works in harmony and is suffused with love, compassion and mutual solicitude, we are left with a society composed of atomized individuals, each of whom is unconcerned with the plight of his fellow human beings.

Crisis and Spirituality

Since a crisis is largely spiritual in character, it would then have to be addressed by using primarily (though not solely) spiritual means.  By this, I refer to the importance of embracing spirituality, most especially amidst a secular world that has only produced what Pope John Paul II has described as a “culture of death.”

Spirituality may be defined as the human attempt to bring about the reign of God through an active engagement with the world and by re-establishing the human community that has been injured by man’s/woman’s mindless and selfish pursuit of individual interests.

This entails the untiring search for the face of Christ and finding it in the faces of our brothers and sisters.  It means reaching out to the Divine by providing a helping hand to the poor, the needy and the oppressed.  It consists of interpreting the social issues that we confront as a nation and as a community in the light of the Gospel and in the teachings of the Risen Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Church of the Poor

Such concept of spirituality is not alien to the Church.  Rather, that is her very purpose, and this was emphasized by her Founder our Lord Jesus Christ when he said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

To be spiritual, therefore, is to follow in the footsteps of the historical Jesus whose teachings are revealed in the Scriptures.  Such spirituality, moreover, entails an active commitment and solidarity with the poor- a precept which Christ clearly and most beautifully articulated in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are you, who are poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you, who hunger now,
For you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you, who weep now,
For you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
When they exclude you and insult you
And reject your name as evil,
Because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
Because great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. (Luke 6: 20-23)

This notion of service to the poor was again reiterated by Christ in the parable of the Last Judgment wherein he said:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25: 34-36).

These instructions from the Scriptures later inspired Pope John XXIII, in his inaugural address to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council on September 11, 1962, to describe the Church as the Church of the Poor.  The task of the Council, so he said, is to “contribute/help in the diffusion of the social and communitarian content which is immanent/inherent to authentic Christianity in its entirety: only in this manner can the church present herself as the church for all peoples (universal) and, above all, as the Church of the Poor.” Hearing these inspiring words from the Pontiff, Vatican II followed his example and later resolved that the Church, both as a community and as an institution, provide a “preferential option for the poor.”

This was again reiterated in the first meeting of Asian bishops in 1970 that was held in Manila, wherein the participants declared that, “God is calling the churches in Asia to become the Church of the Poor.” Later it was adopted by the Church here in the Philippines during the Second Plenary Council (PCP II) in 1991 when it declared that the Church shall serve as the Church of the Poor.  By this, they meant “a Church that defends and vindicates the rights of the poor even when doing so spells for itself alienation or persecution.”

It must however be clarified that by proclaiming itself as the Church of the Poor, the Church does not intend to be exclusively composed of people from the lower classes, or that a wealthy person is automatically barred from receiving the gift of salvation.

Rather, such pronouncement simply means that the Church recognizes the extent of poverty in the contemporary world; and that this problem is not merely brought about by the overriding greed of a few individuals, but is due to structural causes and a host of other policies that engender such situation and reproduces a system that is marked by the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.

In the Philippines, this view has been consistently championed by Bishop Julio Labayen who, in his book Revolution and the Church of the Poor, pointed out that

the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in any society, whether capitalist or socialist, is the result of a system that is operative in that society, regardless of the theory and ideology behind it.  The difference and its concomitant growing widening gap between the rich and the poor is systemic.  It is the outcome of an economic system that works in favour of the powerful and the rich.  It is not simply a matter of hard work or its absence.

Human Dignity and Human Rights

By proclaiming itself as the Church of the Poor, the Church thereby affirms the dignity of every human being - that regardless of our differences in economic stature, that despite the material scarcity that most of our fellowmen (and indeed our countrymen) face on a daily basis, that even with the want and squalor and that is often associated with the poor and the destitute, we are all still equal before the eyes of the Lord.

Indeed, as the Second Vatican Council aptly reminds us:

Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God’s likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition. (Gaudium et Spes, 29)

Because of the stress that it gives on the notion of human dignity, the Church has always viewed itself as a champion and defender of human rights, believing that a person can only enjoy the fullest extent of his dignity if his rights are recognized and respected by the community and are constantly protected by the state.

But what are human rights?

The best answer is to be found in Senator Jose Diokno’s book A Nation for Our Children wherein he described human rights as “more than legal concepts: they are the essence of man.  They are what make man human.  That is why they are called human rights: deny them and you deny man’s humanity.”

As Dr. Aurora Parong of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) also pointed out, human rights as “freedoms and entitlements inherent to all human beings.”  These rights, moreover, are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was unanimously adopted on December 10, 1948.


As part of the developing world, poverty remains one of the most pressing problems of the Philippines.  In 2003 for instance, it was revealed that 25 million Filipinos out of a total population of 85 million (or about 30.4% of the population) live below the poverty line; and that out of this 25 million, ¾ of which are rural poor.

For this reason, agrarian reform has become an issue of vital importance vis-à-vis human rights scenario in the country.  Poverty in the countryside can never be fully addressed unless the question of equity, social justice and asset reform are fully confronted - and these are elements that constitute a good and viable agrarian reform program. This social context led to the enactment of Republic Act 6657 on June 10, 1998, which is more commonly known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

The said program is in accord with the Church’s teaching which asserts that food access is a means by which to secure one’s right to life.  This has been articulated by the Church, most especially in the papal encyclical Pacem in Terris which was released in 1963 by Pope John XXIII.  The Church even went further by affirming that the right of farmers to own land is not only valid and just but is, more importantly, in accord with nature and with God’s plan.  Pope Leo XIII in 1891 asserted in his encyclical Rerum Novarum that

the entire scheme of securing a livelihood consists in the labor which a person expends either on his own land…the compensation for which is drawn ultimately from no other source that from the varied products of the earth and is exchanged for them.  For this reason, it also follows that private possessions are clearly in accord with nature. (Rerum Novarum, 8-9)

While it recognizes the right of everyone to own land, the Church nonetheless condemns the over-concentration of land in the hands of a powerful few, which leads to the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the rural majority.  But despite its social teachings and the importance that it gives to our farmers and our rural brethren, the Church is still painfully aware that the promise of agrarian reform is yet to be fully realized in the Philippines and that the Filipino farmer is still one of the most exploited members of the human family.

Thus, as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) stressed in its pastoral statement: “(c)learly, farmers are the backbone of the Philippine economy.  And yet, they are the most neglected sector of Philippine life.” What is alarming is that in recent years, the rural poor have not only been victimized by landlessness, they have also become targets of various forms of human rights violations.

From 1998 to June 2006, the Partnership for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Services (PARRDS) documented 387 cases of human rights violations in 20 subject areas across the country involving 18,872 victims who are farmers and rural organizers. Of the 387 cases, eight occurred from 1998 to 2000, while the remaining 379 cases were reported from 2001 up to the present.

We can identify two possible reasons for this upsurge in rural violence:

o    first, is the growing mobilization of farmers and the rural poor for social justice and land redistribution, and the concomitant reaction from landed elites and hacienderos to protect their interests; and
o    second, the growing militarization in the countryside as a consequence of the political crisis wherein the administration regards all forms of mobilizations as attempts to dislodge those in power.

The Role of the Church in the times of crisis

I believe that in this context, the role of the Church is clear for its social teachings demand that it side with those who are suffering and are economically disenfranchised.  This is so for as Pope Paul VI reminds us in his Evangelii Nuntiadi, the salvation that Jesus proclaimed is liberation from all forms of oppression such as “famine, chronic diseases, illiteracy, poverty, (and) injustices.”

This mission becomes even more compelling in a situation where there are widespread human rights violations which threaten the very life of an individual which the Church is called upon to celebrate, nourish and defend.

I believe that we, as Christians and Church workers, are not called upon to be neutral.  We are called upon to be critical.  This is the kind of spirituality that is demanded of us in these crisis-ridden times.  And to do so is to live, think and feel like the Risen Christ who is always “present in exploited and alienated humankind.”

But like all human ideas, the now challenge is for us to go beyond the “theoretical blueprinting” exercise and turn our dreams and ideals into living reality.  As the late Pope John Paul II urged the faithful in his 12 November 2000 homily during the Jubilee of the Agricultural World; “We can no longer limit ourselves to academic reflections”.

We from the religious community should therefore be able to concretely translate such commitments into realistic and manageable pastoral work by being in the forefront in the fight for social justice and in the defense and promotion of human rights. There could never be more apt, as a testimony of our faith in the redeeming and liberating power of Christ, as we mold and deepen our Christian communities through the following apostolic ministries:

*     vigorously facilitating human rights education work;
*     actively joining in the agrarian reform and human rights advocacy campaign;
*     coming out with statements decrying HR violations and abuses (as perpetrated by both State and Non-State actors);
*     documenting and reporting HR violations and abuses;
*     providing relief assistance to the victims and their families;
*     providing legal and paralegal assistance to indigent victims; and
*     facilitating or providing sanctuaries to help secure the safety of victims, their families or vital witnesses of human rights violations and atrocities.

In actuality there are plenty of ways to manifest our abidance of God’s greatest commandment than what has been presented.  But then again, the big question is, when do we move?

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