Interview: Jayeel Cornelio on Faith and Belonging in the Philippines

Contributing editor Evan Kuehn interviewed sociologist Jayeel Cornelio about his research on religion, youth, institutions, and politics in the Philippines.

Evan: The theme of this issue is “theologies of belonging.” As a sociologist, how do you think about the concept of “belonging?”

Jayeel: The immediate idea that comes to mind is “exclusion.” Of course belonging is about shared identities, values, practices, and convictions. We find these attributes in religion as much as we do in other collectivities. But from a sociological perspective, belonging can only make sense in relation to exclusion: Who are excluded from these collectivities? And why? Through these questions we have to encounter hierarchies of acceptability and competing values. Taken to a certain extreme, these hierarchies engender social conflict. 

Faith communities thrive in articulating and reinforcing these hierarchies of acceptability and competing values. While these are sources of collective bravado and identity, they can also foster modes of discrimination. The way the Philippines is (wrongly) described as the “only Christian nation in Asia” is a case in point. This discourse, deployed by the religious sector, marginalizes not only non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, indigenous peoples, and the religiously unaffiliated). LGBTQ+ persons are finding it difficult to assert gender equality. This is because these groups are not part of the Christian imaginary—the discursively powerful national sense of belonging.

Evan: In your study of young Catholics in the Philippines, you identify what you call “indwelt individualization,” to complicate our understanding of how young people negotiate their own understanding of faith. Can you explain what this means, and what it contributes to our understanding of modern individuality?

Jayeel: I’m glad you got to read that book! Thank you. I developed the concept of “indwelt individualization” to refer to the process in which Catholics youths developed their own convictions about being Catholic by drawing on their own experiences and personally developed worldviews. It is a process of individualization because for these youths, the self is the final arbiter of authenticity and not the institution. This allows them to counter conventional expectations of religiosity such as attending Mass. But the process is also indwelt because they do so without abandoning their Catholic identity. They believe that volunteering for humanitarian work instead of attending Mass on a given Sunday, they are far “more Catholic” than those who might know, say, the catechism but are unable to extend compassion to other people. In this sense, indwelt individualization is as much a critique of the religious institution as it is a reimagining “authentic” ways of being Catholic in the here and now.    

Evan: In your work, you have maintained a critical distance from some of the assumptions of western social theory, for instance about secularization, and the sociology of generations. How does universalizing these assumptions create problem for understanding faith? Or, maybe put differently, how is faith in the Philippines enmeshed within different social pressures than faith in the United States or Europe?

Jayeel: To contest theories developed in the West was and remains to be my main orientation as a Filipino sociologist. While Filipino social scientists have become far more reflexive now, I think that many of my counterparts still resort to these ideas to explain local realities. Case in point is secularization. One discerns it again and again in the moralistic trope of the religious sector about the youth, as if young people are always the problem. By contrast, my work on Catholic youth demonstrates that they are not abandoning religion. They are simply reinterpreting it in ways that make it far more authentic for them. In the sociology of generations, my work also challenges the use of Western labels such as Millennials and Gen Z to refer to youth and young adults today. At a closer look, one finds that the situation of young people here differs tremendously from that of their counterparts, say, in North America. Access to education, employment, digital technology, and nutrition remain disheartening for many Filipinos. Referring to them as Millennials or Gen Z too often privileges affluent youths who constitute the minority in Philippine society.

Evan: What can it mean to belong to a religious community?

Jayeel: I will offer a counterintuitive response based on what I am now observing in my research. I think belonging to a religious community is increasingly a matter of choice for many Filipinos. It is no longer a given, even if that might seem to be the case because religion is a taken for granted reality in Philippine society. After all, practically all Filipinos are born into a religious community. But I think they are now entertaining questions about faith and the religious institution as a whole, a disposition encouraged not just by greater access to knowledge but also by what other social scientists refer to as “felt unfreedoms”. The fact that divorce is not allowed in the Philippines and that the LGBTQ+ are still actively discriminated against in religious institutions are moments that compel young Filipinos to begin questioning what it means to belong to them.

Evan: Your work focuses on many different sorts of belonging, including generational, denominational, national, and transnational… it seems to me that our current global moment is almost oversaturated with layers of community formation, rather than being primarily about individualization or loss of belonging. Is this a fair takeaway from your work? Why do you think the myth of modernity as antithetical to communal belonging has such a strong hold on people?

Jayeel: Yes, this is a fair takeaway from my work. In fact, my work is not so much about individualization as deinstitutionalization. I think my work recognizes the formation of new ways of thinking about what it means to belong and therefore the reconfiguration of solidarities. In my experience of discussing my work before big audiences, usually ministers and youth workers, I noticed that many of them readily resonate with my findings. They appreciate the observation, for example, that for Catholic youths, “right living is more important than right believing.” But it is always the case that someone will contest the pastoral implications of my work. They argue, time and again, that this conviction is inconsistent with the calling of ministers, that is, the proclamation of truth. In fact, at one point, I was even accused of being a relativist and postmodernist! (I did not know that the group that invited me was mainly composed of conservative religious educators.) Obviously they called me postmodernist out of derision, overlooking that postmodernity can also be about the discovery of faith and new solidarities.

There you have it. That’s one concrete example that “the myth of modernity as antithetical to communal belonging has such a strong hold on people.” Politely, I would remind them that the issue is not so much about truth claims as it is about the search for authenticity among Catholic youths. Failure to recognize this has engendered so much resentment among my own interlocutors in their own parishes and religious communities. This is also true for youths of other religious groups I have studied over the years (such as evangelical megachurches). 

Evan: How does sociology of religion relate to development studies in your work?

Jayeel: Oh my. Doing so continues to be a challenging but fulfilling task, to be honest. Development studies, as a field, usually revolves around the disciplines of economics and politics, and to some extent sociology and anthropology. When I took over the directorship of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University, I made it a point to make sociology one of its foundational courses. I have also made it a point to relate religion to the development concerns in the Philippines. In some cases, the relationship is a given. Think about the elections and humanitarian crisis. I have written, for example, on religious organizations and civic engagements. In other cases, the relationship is shaped by the political context. Think of Duterte’s war on drugs, the proposed reinstatement of the death penalty, and gender equality. All of these touch on the human rights aspect of development.

Evan: I know that you are a sociologist, not a theologian. But I also know that your approach to the sociology of religion is theologically astute (which isn’t always the case among sociologists!). So I want to ask you: what about your research on religion in the Philippines do you think theologians should pay attention to?

Jayeel: It has always been clear to me that in the Philippine context, it would be the religious sector that would be interested in my work on Catholic youths. I’ve been proven correct. To this day I am still invited to talk about that work. In these encounters with the religious sector, I allow my audience to reflect on the pastoral implications of my work. I avoid giving my own prescriptions since I feel that they are in a better position to assess their vocation. 

But over time I have turned my attention to the field of religion and politics. It is inescapable for any sociologist of religion in the Philippines. Many religious institutions (beyond the Catholic Church) have thrown their support for Duterte’s war on drugs and also the reinstatement of the death penalty. They have also resisted legislative moves for gender equality. They have done so all in the name of the Christian identity of the Philippines. I want theologians to pay attention to the exclusionary consequences of always referring to the Philippines as a “Christian nation”. We began with this conversation belonging and exclusion, and it seems fitting to wind down on this note too.  

Evan: Yes, we’ve come full circle, and I appreciate your attention to the political aspects relevant to theology and society in your work. As a final question, could you say a bit about your current work, so that our readers can continue to learn from you?

Jayeel: My plate is full this year. I’m working on some publications on martial law and the church. This year is the 50th anniversary of Marcos’s proclamation of martial law, a tumultuous period in the 1970s and 1980s that saw the impoverishment of Filipinos and human rights violations. While many scholars have written about the Catholic Church, not many work on evangelical responses to Marcos’s dictatorship. But this is not only a scholarly matter. My colleagues and I are troubled by the rise to power of Marcos’s family in Philippine politics. I wanted to say too that I just finished a monograph! Co-written with one of the country’s leading theologians, Fr. Jose Mario Francisco, People’s Christianity: Theological Sense and Sociological Significance is an interdisciplinary work. Since the book will be published by Paulist Press, we hope that scholars especially in the Global South will find it useful in their own work.

Jayeel Cornelio

Jayeel Cornelio is an associate professor and director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Evan Kuehn

Contributing editor Evan Kuehn is an assistant professor at North Park University.