Pastoral Exhortation
on Philippine Culture


He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him. But to all who did accept him He gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself. The Word was made flesh, he lived among us and we saw his glory the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1, 11-14)


Introduction. In accordance with the Holy Father’s hopes for the renewal of the Church in his letter “On the Coming of the Third Millennium” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1995), we issue this year our third exhortation on a crucial area of Philippine life. In 1997, we spoke on our politics; last year on our economy; this year we propose to focus on yet another aspect of our national life: our culture.

From what we have seen already about Philippine politics and economics, it is clear much of the evil as well as the good we have noted in them stem to a large extent from our culture—the way of life distinctive of us as a people, especially the values that we live by.

In this concern with culture, we ask: How much of the Gospel has become part of our way of life? How do we let it penetrate deeper into our culture, influence our values? How do we make them—our values—more conformed to those of Christ in our interaction with one another?

In asking these questions, we presuppose the answer to a prior one: Considering the welter of regional and sub-regional cultural traditions in the country today, can we say there is such a thing as “Philippine culture?” We answer this question from what social scientists tell us about our culture, namely, that there is a common social structuring of our many and diverse peoples, whether Iloko or Tagalog, Maranao or Ilongo, Manobo or Bontok, Ibanag or whatever, and there is too a common cultural matrix underlying that social structuring. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) itself makes this reading its own:

• Ours is a pluralist society and a prime factor of our pluralism is the diversity of our cultural heritage. Lowland cultures have been heavily influenced by three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, the Muslim peoples of the south by Islamic traditions, and the mountain tribes, especially on Luzon, Mindanao and Mindoro, have retained much of their pre-Spanish characteristics.
The differences notwithstanding, we can speak of a generic Philippine culture. And we can do so if we focus on the structuring of our many social and ethnic groups and the basic values that go with that structuring. And we see that in all Philippine peoples—it does not matter whether they are upland or lowland, Christian or Muslim, schooled or unschooled—there is a common structuring of social relations based on the family and its well-being which antedate contacts with Muslim and Christian traditions. Basic values (family itself, loyalty to family, concern for its security, stress on authority and respect for elders, among other things) are supportive of this sociological fact. The commonalities are more striking than the differences, and we can conclude there is indeed a common culture and a common social structure that we can truthfully call Filipino. ( Acts and Decrees, no. 18 and 19)

So, we will look into that common culture and social structure. This will be the first part of our present exhortation. Then we will go into what the Church has been saying and teaching in recent times about the importance of culture in our living of our Catholic faith. And lastly, we will try spelling out some of the implications of the two foregoing parts for the life and pastoral work of the Church today in view of the Holy Father’s urgent call for renewal.


There are many things we can look into when we speak of a people’s culture: their art, architecture, tools, technology; their modes of behavior and social interaction; their customary laws and norms of day-to-day relationships; their systems of communication and language; their ways of thinking and symboling; their worldviews, beliefs, values.

It is the inner part of culture—the thinking, believing, symboling, valuing part—that will concern us most here. We will focus on that inner aspect and sum it all up under the rubric of values: what a people define as good, what their goals in life are, what makes them act thus and so and not another way. Values, thus, are at the deepest level of culture—they are its heart and core. They are, for all intents and purposes, what give people their identity as a people, a distinct human society.

We will be adopting here the view of culture which sees it as a product of the interaction between social structures (macro-level institutions) and people’s adaptations, response and strategies to them for living. Thus we see values as essentially dynamic because they are precisely a product of this interaction which, while structured in some way, is nevertheless always subject to the creative force of human agency.

What this perspective implies is that we can speak of a very close relationship between culture and social structure in the sense that the latter embodies aspects of the former by limiting the options available to people so that their behavior would conform with—and express—certain values. But behavior, being a complex manifestation of values and a response to the limits imposed by social structures, can also exhibit an incompatibility with either the values themselve or the social structure. Thus, for instance, an exaggerated or excessive interpretation of the value of family could end up in unacceptable nepotism; and a pro-democracy movement could arise even under an authoritarian social system.

The potency of culture precisely lies in its ability to redefine, through human agency, the fundamental values on which it is based and to confront such social structures as simultaneously reinforce and undermine those values. Thus, it is possible for us to have not only long-held, traditional values, but also emergent ones—values that are in the process of being institutionalized in social structures and interactions. We will thus have to look at both traditional and emergent values—and as well the incompatibilities (excesses especially of traditional values) that we noted are possible developments in the dynamics of culture.

Traditional Filipino Values

We begin with what we have already noted above as the most striking feature of Filipino culture: the value we put on family – and family both as nuclear and extended. Attachment and loyalty to one’s family are a central organizing principle of Philippine social structure and behavior. We generally define our personal interests in terms of those of the family. Personal identity is very closely tied in with its good name and honor. An individual’s success is regarded as the family’s success, be it in business or in politics. We aspire for excellence, achievement and economic advancement for the sake of our family.

The functionality of the Filipino’s family-centeredness is quite all-encompassing. Family networks facilitate the individual’s access to the broader society. The family is the principal means for gaining entry into the public realm of Philippine society where both economic and political transactions are carried out, facilitated and mediated through family networks. Social alliances, whether in business or in politics, are often based on family ties too inasmuch as trust and loyalty tend to be confined to family members. A family-against-the-world mentality is often the result.

While we work hard for the sake of our families, we also expect much from them—they are after all our basic communities. The family functions as the most important provider of social welfare and security in Philippine society where state and private welfare institutions are unavailable, or if available, are generally perceived as either inaccessible or unreliable. Family members are expected to supply the material and emotional needs of their kin, the mutual sharing of favors and resources within the family reinforcing family solidarity and loyalty. In this strong sense of family solidarity and loyalty, there is at work a basic equality of the sexes which belies what often seems to be a culture that glorifies the male excessively and relegates the female to a subordinate status.

Familism as a central value shaping social behavior also underlies, to a very large extent, our notions of authority, legitimacy and power. More emphasis is placed, however, on the vertical dimension of power relations—those elements that have to do with authority and hierarchy. There is a weak sense of power defined in terms of horizontal or intra-class alliances. In other words, authority, legitimacy and power are generally seen as emanating from those who hold and exercise them, i.e., the rulers, rather than as coming from those who give them, i.e., the ruled. Someone is seen as influential and powerful (malakas) by virtue of one’s connections with people at the top of the economic or political hierarchy rather than by virtue of having the support of a broad-based constituency. Indeed, power of influence (lakas) is one of the most prominent values that we put into play in our social interaction with others.

The preponderant part patron-client ties play among us is a reflection of the tendency to define power more in terms of vertical, rather than horizontal, relationships. The tenant of a landed family or the driver of a company executive, for example, would more easily connect his own interests and status with those of his landlord or employer (amo) than with those of other tenants or members of the working class. Employers are sometimes seen as extensions of one’s family to whom loyalty, obedience and debts of gratitude (utang na loob) are owed. There is little class consciousness or solidarity beyond that fostered by face-to-face interaction.

Those who hold power and wealth, however, are expected to be generous and caring towards their subordinates. Lakas assumes a prominently paternalistic quality but it is expected to be tempered with compassion (awa ). The powerful are expected to protect the weak or at least be considerate of their right to a minimum level of survival. Thus, the poor and the weak are able to find security in their dependence.

An important aspect of our concept of power is tied to the notion of hierarchy. Centuries of colonial domination only served to reinforce pre-Spanish patterns of authority and hierarchy and the political culture that flowed from them. In this manner of political culture, persons of authority, social status and wealth are rarely questioned openly. Decision-making is frequently highly centralized. The opinions of people of authority are readily accepted and followed in most institutional contexts, whether in the family, in school, or in the workplace. Even in institutions considered as modern such as business corporations, the chief executive is oftentimes the sole decision-maker. Conversely, people with low status are expected to be compliant. Processes based on consultation and consensus-building are the exception rather than the rule.

We also put a high value on hard work, patience and perseverance. Perseverance (tiyaga) is considered a virtue. Poverty is seen as being caused by negative human traits like laziness or vices (bisyo ) and fate (kapalaran). There is a pronounced fatalism in the way we view social mobility and hierarchy. Consequently, bisyo and kapalaran—rather than any notion of exploitation—are more readily identified as explanations for poverty.

Ours is a highly personalistic culture. We rely to a large extent, for the fostering of social ties, on face-to-face interaction. Consequently, social bonds and group solidarity depend not so much on common interests as on interpersonal ties based on reciprocity and mutual trust. Utang-na-loob, hiya and pakikisama become operative social norms in the context of this highly personalistic culture in which social behavior is very much oriented towards keeping interpersonal relations running smoothly.

Social behavior is regulated by the need to conform to social expectations to exhibit hospitality and reciprocity in interpersonal relationships. This is manifested in the moral pressure exerted by hiya and pakikisama in sanctioning deviations from expected behavior. Being seen as lacking in these traits (walang hiya, walang utang-na-loob or hindi marunong makisama) is an affront to one’s person and consequently diminishes one’s credibility among his/her social group. These norms likewise constrain us from engaging in behavior that would jeopardize group cohesion. We may feel compelled to go along with what everyone else is doing because of shame and a desire not to ruffle feelings even when we know that the action is morally wrong. We are generally reluctant to do anything that would disrupt group solidarity.

As a people, we are also known for our strong religiosity. Dependence on the benevolence of a Transcendent Being is a deeply held value and belief among us. While this has sometimes produced a certain degree of fatalism, our religiosity provides a moral anchor to individuals when confronted with a personal crisis. Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa (it is God’s prerogative to show compassion, it is man’s to act) underscores our deep sense of the limits of human effort, even as the necessity of hard work is also recognized. Moral righteousness is often equated with being God-fearing. A person described as possessing fear of God ( takot sa Diyos) is considered trustworthy.

Part 2



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Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Culture