Column: Between Jerusalem and Antioch

The split in the Couples for Christ movement is of consuming interest to me; I spent the entire day yesterday (quite literally) writing the following column. I cannot regard it with frank satisfaction, but Resty Odon and Manolo Quezon were kind enough to note it.

Published on September 4, 2007

The crisis in the Couples for Christ movement touches us all — either because we are Filipino or because we are Catholic. In the last quarter-century, this family-oriented Catholic charismatic renewal movement founded in the Philippines has become a global phenomenon: over a million members, reaching millions more, with a presence in 160 countries.

In the last half-decade, it has also become known for an innovative social ministry. Or maybe not. Identifying the famous and successful Gawad Kalinga housing initiative as the work of CFC lies, in fact, at the epicenter of the upheaval.

“It appears that certain CFC principles and way of life [sic] are giving way to Gawad Kalinga,” three bishops with some responsibility for CFC wrote to the Elders’ Assembly on June 7. “The spiritual and pastoral culture of CFC must not be sacrificed for the sake of GK. Nor should GK be imposed on all since there are other pillars of concern.” (The three were: Bishop Gabriel Reyes of Antipolo, CFC spiritual director and chair of the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Lay Apostolate; Archbishop Angel Lagdameo of Jaro, CBCP president; and Bishop Socrates Villegas of Balanga, the first bishop to discuss the crisis with CFC leaders.)

After a controversial election in June, the crisis came to a head in late July. On Aug. 1, the newly elected CFC International Council sounded the alarm: “The recent pronouncements and e-mails of Bro. Frank Padilla point to an inevitable split in the CFC community.” It quoted Padilla, CFC’s long-time leader, as saying, in an e-mail dated July 25: “This split will give a clear choice for our brethren — to stay with the present CFC and its emerging total focus on GK, or to go with the new CFC, which is the original and true CFC.”

One cannot read the documents available online or read the forwarded emails that float in the electronic ether or listen to friends caught in the middle without feeling a great anguish. (At least I can’t.) Many good people are involved, a lot of good work is at stake. At the same time, the issue, as joined, is a genuine dilemma for the committed Catholic: How much of our salvation rests on faith, how much on good works?

Or, to use religious language familiar since the late 20th century and apply it to the Gawad Kalinga experience: How do we strike a balance between the social and the spiritual?

The CFC Council has answered this emphatically, with a resounding reaffirmation of the movement’s vision and mission. To this not-disinterested observer, however, CFC’s dilemma remains. The question of GK’s exact role in the CFC movement, if I may still refer to both groups as a unity, still needs to be answered.

To be sure, both sides in the movement must recognize the danger that the two tendencies represented by their two leaders — Padilla the co-founder, described on his group’s website as the “keeper of the charism,” and Tony Meloto, the Magsaysay Awardee and the driving force behind Gawad Kalinga — pose for them. As St. Augustine wrote in a completely different context: “Only great men proclaimed heresies.” I do not mean to suggest that either man advocates what amounts to Catholic heresy; far from it. I only want to emphasize the import of what is at stake, and what will become clear only after much time has passed: the spirituality of the CFC movement.

Their decision will define the way CFC will proceed in the faith. Which makes me wonder: Perhaps the CFC movement is caught in its own transition “from Jerusalem to Antioch.”

Worth fighting for. Hurting words have been said. (Hell, even some of the bishops have felt aggrieved!) But if both sides can get past all that, they may find their way to accept the sometimes wounding exchanges as a pledge of passionate conviction.

Intemperate remarks are not unknown in spiritual literature. That truculent traveler from Tarsus, St. Paul, for example, does not mince words in attacking rival preachers bearing a different gospel. In his letter to the Galatians, he describes how “Certain false claimants to the title of brother were smuggled” into what we now know as the Council of Jerusalem, where “they wormed their way into the group to spy on the freedom we enjoy in Christ Jesus and thereby to make slaves of us.”

Or, in the same epistle: “If anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let a curse be upon him!” The redactors of the New American Bible are forced to note “the passionate intensity with which Galatians is written.”

What did these “false claimants” claim? That to follow Christ one needs to become what Christ was, a Jew, and follow Jewish law. In all other respects, the “false claimants” preached the same good news. But precipitated by a crisis in the community in Antioch, the Council in Jerusalem decided “not to lay on [converts] any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.” This decision proved extraordinarily fateful: It allowed the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the world.

Antioch was only a way station on the road to establishing Christianity in Rome, and thus as a world religion. But it was in Antioch that Christ’s followers first called themselves Christian.

I do not believe that, reduced to its essentials, the crisis in Couples for Christ is about so-called Filipino crab mentality pulling Gawad Kalinga back into the sack. I think that, personal motives and hurt feelings aside, it is a time of great trial for the movement, to define itself on its own journey to Rome.


1 Comment

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One response to “Column: Between Jerusalem and Antioch

  1. ed sorreta

    well written, john, and very profound reflections on what may be happening to CFC. but where the Lord is taking CFC only He knows. we just have to hang on to each other (the members) as we weather the crisis. in the end, just as Jesus calmed the storm, everything will work out according to His plan.

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