Reconstructing The Filipino Godparent

If godparents are seen as second parents, then how we choose them reflects our own values of parenting.

It is a tradition ingrained in the Filipino as far as our colonial history. More than the birth of the Christian god, Christmas is seen as “a day for the children.” The younger ones would still have their beliefs in Santa Claus, while their parents would roam around alongside them, collecting gifts and money from their ninong and ninang.

A good godparent, in turn, would fulfill this expectation, but a bad one would hide from their inaanak. There is a reason that meme culture portrays this yearly dilemma so accurately, and that is because there is an element of truth in it.

Godparenting in the Philippines is one of the most challenging privileges one can have. Not only are godparents mandated to act as secondary parents to their godchildren, providing spiritual guidance under the provisions of the Church, but there are social mores precluding them to give monetary and non-monetary gifts, especially during Christmas season in form of the aguinaldo. One would think that this disadvantageous scenario persisting for generations is illogical, and yet the tradition continues.

Spiritual Beginnings

The tradition has its roots in the Catholic Church, but it also can be traced back into the cultural exchanges brought on by the galleon trade and Spain’s governance of the Philippines from its colonies in Latin America (specifically Mexico). This system is called compadrazgo, where more emphasis was placed on the relationships between the godparents and the biological parents. In fact, aside from the responsibility of spiritual guidance, godparents have been elevated to the status of “second parents,” and should be ready to take on actual parental responsibilities if for any reason the biological parents are unable to do so.

It is important to note that being a godparent does not only stop at christening; in the Catholic church, there are also ninongs and ninangs present at confirmations and weddings, though it is usually the ones at christenings that take the brunt of the societal expectations. Another important note is that godparenting has no biblical basis. It is sanctioned by the church as a spiritual practice but it has no liturgical context.

Godparenting as a Cultural Construct

While the church has anointed godparenting as an important aspect of a Chirstian’s spiritual journey throughout life, they also have very specific requirements before anyone can become a godparent. These include being in the same faith and being at the right age to understand the ramifications of being a second parent to a child. In addition, the church only ever allows two official sponsors, one male and one female, to take witness at a christening.

However, not all of these requirements are being followed, if at all. We have seen people of different faiths (or non-practicing Catholics) and underage people become sponsors, and parents make allotting godparents to their kids a numbers game . In fact, it would be unusual nowadays for a child to not have more than two godparents. Again, this is not sanctioned by the church but is very widely accepted culturally, even as early as the Spanish colonial era. George Foster, an American anthropologist, writes about this particular phenomenon:

“Spiritual kinship, and the exogamous aspects of the relationship, were extended to near relatives of the three parties, and the number of sponsors at any act was greatly increased, to as many as thirty in the case of baptism. Parents frequently sought to obtain godparents of a higher social and economic status for the material advantages that would accrue to their children.”

It would be dishonest to say that Filipinos do not consider the material and influential advantages that a slew of godparents can afford their children in the future, and it is curious to see that this practice has not changed much, from its feudal origins during the Spanish colonial era, up to the current modern age.

From Feudalist to Capitalist Machinery

Social mores surrounding the culture of godparenting remained unchanged throughout the centuries, enabling the practice to withstand time. Even now, being asked to become a child’s godparent is seen as such a huge privilege that anyone afforded it would have to say yes. This perceived “honor” attributed to the role is so important that close friends or family members would even volunteer to become a ninong or ninang without being asked.

But capitalism has transformed the practice to even more sinister forms. Aside from the sheer number of godparents the biological parents will allow their children, even the individual status of each godparent is now undergoing scrutiny. It is not uncommon for parents, for instance, to seek out sponsors with well-paying jobs or in positions of power. OFWs and politicians are usual targets. This is again an attempt to assure their children’s places in the future regardless of their own family’s socioeconomic status.

Moreover, while Christmas is still the usual traditional time for godparents to fulfill their gift-giving responsibilities, capitalism has amplified the need for material gain to new heights. Godparents are now expected to provide material rewards for all of their godchildren’s milestones, like birthdays and moving-up ceremonies. It has reached a point that the original responsibility of the godparent, which is to guide their godchildren spiritually, has now been superseded completely by their financial ability to provide.

Reconstructing the Filipino Godparent

Catholic canon law states that all godparents must be “Catholics of good standing.” However, we have now discussed that godparenting in the Philippines is more of a cultural practice than a spiritual one, even if the locus is on religious grounds. Therefore, reforming the practice means realigning our beliefs on some of its facets.

Looking at the issue more deeply, it is clear that capitalism has driven the current culture of godparenting to that of excess and materialism. The need to outdo each other leads to the use of kinship and camaraderie to exploit well-meaning people. Truly, parents who subscribe to this corrupted form of godparenting would use their own children for personal gain.

Centuries of culture and tradition cannot be changed overnight, and it is not unlikely for the current materialistic godparenting culture to persist in one way or form. But it is not too late to change at an individual level; by making sure that godparenting responsibilities are taken very seriously, potential godparents can always decline requests from those parents who only seek material gratification through this act, and vice versa. One must remember that asking and accepting to be a child’s second parent is, above all, a privilege, and this entails a deep personal and even spiritual relationships among the parties.

If godparents are seen as second parents, then how we choose them reflects our own values of parenting. Aren’t parents not just material providers, but also caregivers, nurturers, disciplinarians, and teachers of morality? If you are a parent who would ask somebody to be your child’s godparent, you should reflect on the above. If you can still find thirty people with the above qualities, you and your children are blessed. If not, then stop and reflect if you are actually making a better future for your child by tolerating a vicious cycle of materialism, and destroying a deeply sacred act of kinship-making in the process.

Jay-ar G. Paloma

Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here:

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