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From the Archives: The Light of the Gospel on Public Issues

Written as part of a collection commemorating the tenth anniversary of the EDSA event, this lengthy article reviews the interaction of the church with the Philippine state during that period, against the background both of the church’s own self-understanding and of the Philippine Constitution of 1987. It notes the efforts of the bishops to provide a moral center in their commentaries on social issues without directly intervening in partisan politics, and also some occasions on which individual bishops may have overstepped the line. Noting that the pastoral letters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines were in most cases but not all—the product of discussion and debate within the conference, I note that they provide in retrospect a rather complete list of the major issues faced by the nation during those ten years-many of which issues still remain—but seem to have had little lasting impact. It is suggested that this may have been due to a lack of systematic discussion and follow-up within the church’s structure.

THE PHILIPPINE Catholic bishops, in their “pastoral exhortation,” dated January 28, 1986, warned that those who might attempt to subvert the upcoming election by fraud or violence would sin grievously and make themselves “unworthy of the Body of the Lord,” thereby suggesting that such persons could be excommunicated or denied Holy Communion by the church. When this strong admonition went unheeded, the same bishops in their “postelection statement” declared that in their considered judgment the election was so shot through with fraud that it provided no moral basis for the government’s continuation in power.

In these statements the bishops in fact echoed, although in a different context, positions taken by church people four centuries earlier. The Augustinian friars who had accompanied Legazpi to the Philippines refused Holy Communion to Spanish soldiers guilty of plundering the goods of the Indios and unwilling to restore what they had stolen; moreover, in a message to the Spanish king they affirmed that “no part of these islands has come under the power of the Spaniards by a just title.”

In both of these instances, church people took a moral stance on the side of the people; moreover, they challenged the very legitimacy of an abusive civil government. A common thread linked the two events, but at the same time centuries of development in the political order and in the church’s self-understanding separated them. When Legazpi and the Augustinians arrived in the Philippines, the “union of church and state”—that is, an official state religion—was normal throughout the Christian world, in Protestant as well as Catholic countries. A state without an official religion would have been regarded as “atheistic,” lacking a moral center, doomed to internal conflict and disintegration. Thus “church” and “state”—that is, the ecclesiastical authorities and the civil authorities—in the Philippines were joined throughout more than three centuries of Spanish rule in what may be described as a frequently turbulent marriage.

These centuries, however, witnessed changes on the world scene. Men wearied of killing one another in the name of the Gospel. The American experiment suggested that people of different faiths could live together in peace and achieve prosperity on the basis of a common value system, Judeo-Christian in inspiration, and mutual respect. Public policy could be determined by a democratic process, with strong constitutional safeguards for the rights of individuals and of minorities. “Church” and “state” being separated, religious leaders could not dictate to the civil authorities, but they could and should help form the consciences and values of their flocks, who would in turn make their views heard through the political process.

“Separation of church and state”—a phrase that does not occur in the American Constitution—was imposed abruptly on the Philippines with American occupation. The turbulent marriage of church and state ended in rather contentious divorce proceedings during the first two decades of American rule. Thereafter, and especially with the coming of independence in 1946, relations were more cordial, though marred at times by disputes on issues such as education and marriage legislation.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution retains the traditional phrase “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable” (Art. II, Sec. 6). Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ., a constitutional lawyer and member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, finds that this phrase has been interpreted reasonably and flexibly by the courts. In essence it means that “Neither side may pass law for the other.” He expands this point as follows:

On the specific question of Church participation in public policy formation, constitutionally, churchmen have every right to participate in the debate about what public policy should be. The right flows not only from the free exercise clause but also from other constitutional guarantees. In the exercise of this right, however, care must be taken that no infringement of the religious liberty of others be committed. Moreover, the dictates of apostolic prudence must be heeded lest excessive zeal alienate men of good will and reduce Church authority to irrelevance.

On the world scene, the Catholic Church demonstrated an openness to church-state separation so understood in the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” of the Second Vatican Council: Without surrendering its claim to be the privileged witness to God’s revelation in Christ, it recognized that adherence to and practice of the faith on the part of individuals must be free and uncoerced. A primary role of government is to assure that freedom, and the declaration implies that this can best achieved when no “special civil recognition” is given to any one religious community.

This by no means implied that the church was about to retire to the sacristy. For there was a growing awareness that the Gospel message entrusted to it was relevant to all areas of life: Gospel values must be brought to bear on the economic and political as well as the personal and familial orders. This awareness became a central concern of the Second Vatican Council and received its classic expression in the 1971 document of the Synod of Bishops entitled Justice in the World:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.

Thus the Christian in the modem world must be politically involved, at least to the extent of being concerned about political issues as they impinge on human freedom, justice, equality, economic and social development, and above all, on the condition of the poor.

The same point was made, also in 1971, by Pope Paul VI in his apostolic letter “Octogesima Adveniens.” He went on, however, to note that while one’s political choices must be in accord with one’s faith, “one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options,” for “the same Christian faith can lead to different commitments.” Hence there is no assumption that in the complexities of today’s world the faith leads inevitably to particular concrete actions; much is left to human intelligence, competence, experience, and the compromises and trade-offs that are the essence of democratic politics.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” has been most explicit in his support of the democratic system, affirming that the church respects the “legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution.” At the same time, he insists that authentic democracy is not a mere legal arrangement, but it must be founded on basic values: respect for the human person and human rights, for freedom, truth, justice, and the common good. For “[a]s history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or disguised totalitarianism.”

The Bishops on the Snap Election and EDSA

In the light of this self-understanding of the church, it may be useful to review the statements of the Philippine bishops on the occasion of the snap election of 1986. A reading of the pastoral exhortation and postelection statement cited earlier will show that in both the bishops were speaking primarily as moral and religious leaders of the Catholic community. They declared that election fraud is they gravely sinful, and threatened anyone who would be guilty of it with exclusion from the community. This is a religious, not a political, sanction, as old as St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

The bishops declared, moreover, that a fraudulent election provides no moral basis for a government’s holding on to power, and expressed their considered opinion, based on observation in their dioceses, that the election had in fact failed as a result of fraud. Yet here they threw the question to the people themselves, asking them to consult their own experience and—if they agreed with the bishops’ assessment of the facts—to decide among themselves how they might peacefully oblige the government to undo the wrong it had committed, and then to act accordingly. The bishops’ penultimate paragraph reads:

Now is the time to speak up. Now is the time to repair the wrong. The wrong was systematically organized. So must its correction be. But as in the election itself, that depends fully on the people; on what they are willing and ready to do. We, the bishops, stand in solidarity with them in the common discernment for the good of the nation. But we insist: Our acting must always be according to the Gospel of Christ, that is, in a peaceful, nonviolent way.

The letter was a prophetic, unprecedented statement that upset not only the Marcos forces but also the papal nuncio to the Philippines, and the Vatican, which had been urging a more cautious approach. Theologically it clearly situated the bishops “within” rather than “above” the Christian community, providing moral leadership and a rallying point while leaving the concrete decisions to the people themselves.

The succeeding events, culminating in the departure of President Marcos on February 25, suggest two important points. First, when the whole of Philippine society is in deep crisis, the Catholic Church to which some 85 percent of Filipinos belong, cannot not be involved; in such a crisis situation any neat distinction between the role of the hierarchy and that of “the people” may break down. When Jaime Cardinal Sin called the people to the streets, he was making a concrete decision without waiting for the people to decide. He was making it, however, not as a politician but as a pastor and religious leader determined to avoid bloodshed in his diocese; still, the outcome depended not on him but on the people’s response.

Second, the fact that the people responded as they did, plus the role of Radio Veritas and of church people and religious symbols in the EDSA event, projected the church as a powerful social and cultural force, a religious community capable of having an impact on political outcomes.

The image of a church that bears some responsibility for the welfare of the nation was to influence its self-understanding as expressed in the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (1991). The latter presented the church as a “community of disciples” of the Lord working together for the common good. Within that community, and in general, the clergy has competence in the moral principles governing politics, but as teachers and centers of unity they should refrain from partisan politics and “the wheeling and dealing” that it entails. The laity’s competence is in the practical and partisan arena. Nevertheless, the council noted that this “rule of thumb” is not absolute: the two competencies sometimes overlap, and the overriding principle is the common good. Moreover, aware of the ambiguities of power, the council notes that the liberty of the church to participate in policy debate and formulation “must not be exercised to the detriment of the religious freedom of non-communicants, or even of dissenting communicants” (no. 358).

The Aquino Regime

A Church of Power?

Once the euphoria occasioned by the departure of President Marcos and the excitement of exploring Malacañang and seeing Mrs. Marcos’s collection of shoes had passed, the nation found itself almost overwhelmed by hopes and fears, opportunities and anxieties. It was a divided society. There were the Marcos loyalists who denied the legitimacy of the Aquino regime, plus a restive military as well as communist and Muslim-led rebellions to be dealt with; as time went on these would lead to a whole series of coup attempts, to the antics of Defense Sec. Juan Ponce Enrile and Col. Gregorio Honasan, failed peace negotiations with the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), renewed bloodshed in the countryside and assassinations in the urban areas by communist hit squads and human rights violations on all sides.

There was the question of how former President Marcos and his chief collaborators should be dealt with, whether their “ill-gotten wealth” could be recovered. Pres. Corazon Aquino and her advisers felt a need to assure the loyalty of government officials down to the municipal level by replacing Marcos people with officers in charge who had campaigned for her election. There was a new constitution to be drafted and presented to the people, a constitution that ideally would embody the hopes and expectations for reform and justice and development that had been nurtured during the long night of the Marcos years, and would thus cut the ground from under the communist rebellion.

In all of this, the new president was handicapped by the lack of a political party to support her or a clear program of action. She had campaigned basically on an anti-Marcos platform (“Sobra na, tama na!”); once Marcos was gone, many of the middle class would return to their private concerns. Her advisers were divided into conservatives and progressives on issues of social reform and economic development; there would be conflict within her cabinet, and some progressives would ultimately be sacrificed as she came under pressure from the military or the landowners. She would find that some of her election promises, notably to give strong support to agrarian reform and to turn over Hacienda Luisita to the workers, would come back to haunt her.

Given this situation, the president was only too happy to have the support of the church, specifically the bishops.

Surprisingly perhaps for those who see church people inveterately hungry for power, not all of the bishops were comfortable with the new situation. Less than a month after the events at EDSA, twenty two bishops met for a two-day reflection session on the national situation, the newfound position of power of the church, and the phenomenon of people power.

The twenty-two bishops asked themselves how they could respond to the president’s invitation for the religious sector to collaborate in rebuilding the nation, but “without becoming an appendage of government.” In particular they were concerned about involvement in the delicate process of replacing Marcos people in local political posts, and the fact that candidates for these posts were seeking the endorsement of the bishops, thus casting them in the role of brokers. In response they formulated a set of guidelines for themselves, aimed at screening out undesirables while promoting broad consultation and depoliticizing the post of officer in charge.

The bishops also listed more long-range concerns that they believed church people should put before the new government: land reform and the ancestral domains of tribal Filipinos; urban housing and policy with regard to squatters; the drafting of a new constitution; forest preservation and reforestation; punishment for past crimes; reconciliation, amnesty, and the disbandment of the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDF); the establishment of mechanisms for broader consultation and participation of the people as a form of institutionalized people power.

In the final section of their report, the twenty-two bishops listed some “first principles that guided their discussion. The power of the church must always be a power for good, at the service of people and of their development. It must be exercised as Christ’s power was, in a persuasive, not coercive manner. The church must avoid the temptation that Christ faced in the desert, to use power for sheer political purposes; and when it does touch on political matters, it must do so within the framework of its pastoral mission. The church must assist the people in their efforts at national reconstruction, but in a subsidiary way by encouraging them to assume responsibility for their own future—something that was not possible under martial law. While retreating somewhat into the background of national life, the church must continue to play a prophetic, critical role when this is called for. At this point, however, it should give primary emphasis to economic projects for the immediate betterment of the lives of the people.

Obviously these reflections were not official positions taken by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP); only 22 out of 104 voting members of the latter attended the workshop. Two months later, however, a special meeting of the CBCP was held, attended by two-thirds of the members, to consider the role of church in the framing of the new constitution as well as the situation of the country. In their discussions they noted that “the mission of the Church the concrete situation definitely has political colors.” They saw no need for the church to be officially represented in the Constitutional Commission, noting that lay Catholics would be there and could give witness to Christian values. The bishops then commissioned their committee on public affairs to draft a pastoral exhortation for circulation to the bishops and eventual publication, and to send an aide-memoire to the president with regard to some urgent issues.

The pastoral exhortation, which was released on Pentecost Sunday, May 18, 1986, was brief. It urged the people to accept gracefully the president’s unpopular decision to have the new constitution prepared by a commission appointed by her rather than by elected delegates, and at the same time to participate indirectly through the mass media and various consultations, and especially through their prayers.

The aide-memoire was a “low profile” attempt to give feedback to the president on issues in which justice or the common good was at risk, without seeming to dictate or to exercise power. It cited the hopes that the people placed in the new government, but also an atmosphere of impatience and anxiety about the manner in which things were going. While recognizing the need for patience, it called attention to a number of problem areas: the officers in charge and the manner of their designation; the summary dismissal of government employees; the hasty sequestration of wealth and property; the Tripoli Agreement and the secessionist movement in Mindanao; the question of amnesty, land reform, some unspecified issues with regard to the constitution yet to be drafted; guidelines for reconciliation with the New People’s Army; the need for a good Board of Censors in view of a proliferation of bomba [sexually explicit] films.

The Pope’s concern

When the bishops gathered for their regular semiannual meeting in July 1986, there was a letter from the pope waiting for them. After expressing his gratification that violence had been avoided during the grave tensions that had affected the political life of the country, he pointed to the urgent tasks that remained, particularly that of alleviating the conditions of the poor. He insisted, however, that this service must be in accord with the mission of the church, “which is not of the temporal but of the spiritual order, not political or economic order but of the religious one.” Hence “the Church is called not to take positions of a political character, or to take part in partisan conflicts, but to give society the expert contribution which is proper to her, as the spiritual light and strength that can contribute to building and consolidating the human community.”

The pope went on to emphasize the role of the laity in infusing Christian values into the political and social orders, and that of the bishops in forming the consciences of the laity. The bishops were to be agents of reconciliation and communion, peacemakers rather than sources of division. The pope concluded with the hope that a renewed sense of solidarity would contribute to the drafting of a new constitution for the nation that would assure religious freedom and the church’s right to carry out its mission, also in education and social service.

A similar concern about political activity on the part of churchpeople seems to have been shared by a large percentage of Filipinos themselves. The Ateneo-Social Weather Stations Public Opinion Report for June 1986 reported the results of a nationwide sample survey conduced in May that included three items on the role of “The Church.” Respondents were evenly divided (40 percent versus 40 percent with 17 percent undecided) on whether the “Church should not get involved in the struggle of the oppressed.” A plurality (45 percent versus 34 percent with 18 percent undecided) agreed that it “should not get involved in working for clean and honest elections,” while a larger plurality (49 percent versus 29 percent with 19 percent undecided) agreed that it “should not support any candidate in an election.” The percentages opposed to church involvement were in each case larger than those registered for similar questions a year earlier, suggesting that some who were in favor of the church’s involvement during the crisis of 1985-1986 now felt that it was time for the latter to return to the sacristy.

The bishops responded with a call for “One Hundred Days of Prayer and Penance for National Reconciliation, Unity and Peace.” The document listed the challenges still to be faced by the nation allowing the accession of the new government, recalled the experience of EDSA, called for renewed and united efforts to confront the nation’s problems, but even more for confidence in God and in each other in order to bring about a new “miracle,” if such be necessary.

The Constitution and beyond

Nevertheless, the bishops thought that their own reflections might be useful for the people as the latter prepared to vote on the draft constitution. Hence an expanded meeting of the Administrative Council of the CBCP was held on November 20-21, with seventy-five members of the conference in attendance. They heard various members of the Constitutional Commission explain key parts of the draft, and put some hard questions, for instance, on whether taking a position would be seen as a partisan political act, on land reform and on “Muslim Mindanao.” A bishop argued that at the very least the bishops should indicate that they had no major objections to the draft constitution, for it guarantees the church sufficient freedom in its evangelizing activity; it in fact facilitates such activity; and it is strongly influenced by Catholic principles, such as on the social function of property, on the death penalty, and on the protection of the unborn.

Despite many reservations on specific items, the body voted to issue a statement that would encourage the people to study the draft and vote wisely and at the same time would provide some moral guidance. A pastoral letter, “A Covenant for Peace,” was then drawn up by a committee. It admitted imperfections in the draft, insisted that the bishops wished to help individuals to form their consciences and vote wisely. It then presented their considered opinion that the document was consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, and opted for its ratification as providing “a firm basis for governance” in the face of destabilizing forces, “a clear direction for national renewal and development, and a covenant for peace.”

The bishops’ regular January meeting in 1987 took place in the shadow of the violence on January 22 at Mendiola Bridge and the eve of the February 2 plebiscite on the new constitution. Their statement, “The Fruit of Justice is Peace,” focused on forces tending to destabilize the government and sabotage the efforts toward peace; graft and corruption, injustice to the farmers and the recourse to violence. It deplored the violence at Mendiola, urged effective land reform, and denounced political extremists who were attempting to disrupt the plebiscite. Peace was seen as coming from the heart, and from the promotion of justice, with the Lord’s self-offering in the Eucharist and on the cross as its most effective symbol.

In their July meeting that same year, coming shortly after the June 28 draft of Executive Order 229 on agrarian reform, bishops returned to that theme with their pastoral exhortation “Thirsting for Justice.” Noting the continuing poverty and inequity in the rural areas and without going into the specifics, they called on the Christian virtues of solidarity and sharing in throwing their weight behind a program of agrarian reform that would be as comprehensive as possible but also realistic, that is, within the capability of government to manage and finance. They asked all parties to cooperate, and pledged not to ask for any exemptions for themselves from whatever would be legislated.

The same meeting issued a pastoral letter on religious instruction in public schools as permitted by the Constitution, and encouraged Catholics to take advantage of the opportunity offered while asking government authorities to facilitate the implementation of this mandate.

The following year, 1988, saw a lengthy pastoral letter on ecology, “What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” which may well have been the first such letter issued by any national hierarchy. This was followed by another, “Protect our Filipino Migrants and Overseas Workers,” and by “Solidarity for Peace: A Statement on Terrorism.” The latter took up the issue of human rights violations and indiscriminate killings by both the government forces—including the vigilantes—and the rebel forces on the Right and the Left. It focused particularly on the killing of civilian noncombatants. Again it appealed to the virtue of solidarity and called for an end to the war. “No worse calamity can befall a nation than the killing of brother by brother.”

In 1989 the bishops returned to the same theme in their July message, “The Manipulative Use of Human Rights Violations.” This was accompanied by “Thou Shalt Not Steal: A Joint Pastoral Letter on Graft and Corruption,” which interestingly enough brings up the now current issue of the controversial numbers game jueteng, as well as tax evasion; it proposed citizens councils at all levels, supported by the church, to monitor the use of public funds and act as the civilian arm of the ombudsman in reporting and prosecuting graft and corruption cases.

The bishops’ meeting in January 1990 took place against the background of the disastrous and bloody coup attempt of early December 1989. In their pastoral letter, “Seek Peace, Pursue It,” they were uncompromising in insisting that the conditions that might morally justify a violent overthrow of government were not present in the Philippines at that time, and in denouncing those who would attempt to justify it. They called for a reform of unjust social structures and of values as the only road to peace, and reviewed many of the issues and proposals that they had earlier put forward for such reforms.

Meeting again in July that year, the bishops issued a statement on the foreign debt problem, which urged some form of debt relief in order to alleviate the sufferings of the people and asked for international support and solidarity in this matter. They also took up the thorny issue of population control.

The population issue

From the time in 1970 when the Catholic Church withdrew from the government’s Population Commission, church and state had often seemed to be on a collision course with regard to the issue of family planning. Major collisions had been avoided, however, mainly because the Marcos government chose to veer off and soften its program of population control. The issue would not go away, however, and reemerged in the presidency of Mrs. Aquino. The staunchly Catholic secretary of Health, Dr. Alfredo Bengzon, decided on a more aggressive program that he insisted was aimed primarily at maternal health and child welfare, not at fertility reduction or population control, although a reduction in the birth rate might well follow.

This rang alarm bells in the office of the Episcopal on Family Life headed by Bishop Jesus Varela. It was proposed that the bishops in their July 1990 meeting issue a pastoral letter opposing the government’s program. Anxious to avoid a collision on the issue, President Aquino proposed a dialogue; the bishops postponed the issuance of their letter and the dialogue was held between representatives of both sides on August 14, the government panel headed by Health Secretary Bengzon and Finance Secretary Jesus Estanislao, and the church panel by Bishop Jesus Varela. The statement issued at the end of the day indicated that the discussions had been “serious, substantive and amicable.” It appeared that a modus vivendi had been found whereby the church would not oppose the government’s program providing that certain non-negotiables (e.g., no coercion, respect for the consciences of individual couples, no abortion) were respected.

To the surprise of many, however, a pastoral letter appeared in October, entitled “Love is Life,” dealing with “the population control activities of the Philippine Government and Planned Parenthood Associations.” It read as though the August dialogue had never taken place, and engaged in an all-out attack on the government’s program. Fundamentally it expressed total distrust of the government on this matter. The letter can be seen as a low point in the relations of the church to the Aquino government, but in fact it was not the work of the CBCP as a whole. At their July meeting the bishops had appointed a committee to draft a pastoral, following the dialogue. As it turned out, however, two of the three bishops in the committee did not see or approve the final draft before it was sent to the CBCP president and released by him in the name of the whole body.

Nor does the hard-line approach taken by the letter necessarily represent the views of all the bishops. Some, without questioning the church’s teaching on contraception, suggest that it should focus on forming the consciences of its own people in this matter and simply insist that the government not coerce or deceive them into acting against their own principles.

The issue would come up again, and even more dramatically during the Ramos administration.

Toward the transition

In July 1991 the bishops issued a statement, “On the Plight of the Poor,” proposing ways in which the country’s dioceses could help alleviate the suffering caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales. Succeeding pastorals under the Aquino regime would focus principally on the 1992 election and the transition of power. The pastoral 1991, “Renewing the Political Order,” also of July, was basically an attempt to educate the electorate, urging them to participate with integrity and competence in what the bishops saw as an event that would be crucial to the nation’s future. In November of the same year, before the parties held their conventions, the bishops issued “Pastoral Guidelines on Choosing Candidates for the 1992 Elections.” In that letter they insisted on the neutrality of the CBCP as a body with regard to particular candidates:

To avoid misinterpretation, we wish to make clear at the outset that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, through this Pastoral Letter, officially endorses no candidate, and favors no political platform. We assert our respect for the healthy ideological pluralism that should characterize our multiparty system and, above all, we confirm the freedom of all of our citizens, of whatever faith, to make their political choices in the light of their consciences.

The bishops’ point was well taken, in view of the continuing reluctance of Filipinos to see the church involved in “politics.” The Ateneo de Manila public opinion survey of April 199l asked a nationwide sample whether the church or church groups have a role to play in politics. The respondents were almost equally divided: 43 percent saying “yes” and 41 percent “no.” Yet when asked about specific activities that the church or church groups might undertake, the only one that received majority approval (84 percent) was “protecting human rights.” Strong majorities disapproved of the church “as critic of government actions,” “opposing government programs such as that on population,” “indicating who should be elected,” “supporting politically oriented groups,” and “supporting rebel groups.” Even “explaining sides of political issues” was thumbed down by a small majority (53 percent versus 38 percent with 5 percent undecided.

“Decision at the Crossroads,” issued after the bishops meeting in January 1992, and after extensive consultation, reviewed the positive and negative signs on the political scene and proposed concrete steps toward making the election the first orderly and peaceful transfer of power in thirty years. It was followed only six days before the election by a statement appealing to the citizens to do everything possible to make the election honest and peaceful.

In fact, the election demonstrated quite clearly that, as Paul VI had noted in “Octogesima Adveniens,” Christians equally well informed and sincere can arrive at different political choices. One discussion that I attended, which brought together a number of well-informed Jesuits, political practitioners, and journalists, illustrated this. One group held that they should in conscience vote for Sen. Jovito Salonga as the one who best represented the ideals of social justice that the church espouses. Another group held, with equal conviction, that they should in conscience vote for Fidel Ramos as the one most likely to prevent the national disaster of a Cojuangco presidency. Jesuits, practitioners, and journalists were found on both sides.

That election also demonstrated that however much the people respected Cardinal Sin, they were not ready to take his advice automatically with regard to candidates. Despite his “whispering campaign” for Ramon Mitra, the latter received a lower percentage of the votes in the archdiocese of Manila than he did in the nation, as a whole.

The Ramos Presidency

With the accession of President Ramos in 1992. the church-state situation “normalized” in a certain sense. The coup threats had receded, and one could now criticize without seeming to destabilize. Mr. Ramos had been elected without any particular help from the church; he therefore owed it nothing, and the church felt no particular responsibility for his performance. This last point was accentuated by the fact that Mr. Ramos is Protestant; Catholics might well breathe a sigh of relief that now the Protestants would have to take the blame for any mistakes that the president might make!

Nevertheless, as a minority president he needed all the support that he could get, and thus was very hesitant to antagonize the church, particularly at the beginning of his term. The bishops, for their part, continued their attempt to throw the light of the Gospel on public issues. The CBCP’s pastoral letters and statements dealt with the death penalty, the problem of AIDS, indigenous cultural communities and their aspirations, kidnapping, peacemaking, population and the family, the petroleum price increase, and the Cairo conference on Population and Development.

Mention of the Cairo conference reminds us that the population issue will not go away; it was a bone of contention with the Aquino government, and became even more so with that of President Ramos. The bishops in July of 1994 wrote to the president, expressing their concern about some of the positions that the organizers of the Cairo conference seemed to be promoting—not only contraception but also abortion and new concepts of the family. They saw here a calculated international effort to impose “modern” secular values on our and other societies, and asked that the Philippine representatives to the conference be people who would defend traditional Filipino values in these matters.

The letter apparently was ignored and the government seemed bent on sending delegates who would espouse positions not in accord with Catholic morality. The outcome was the massive rally at the Luneta on August 15, sponsored by Cardinal Sin, which brought together perhaps a million people in protest. The rally had all the trappings of a political event and projected the power of the church, more than persuasion perhaps, in language that politicians could understand. A compromise on the Cairo delegation was quickly worked out.

In January 1995 the CBCP issued a pastoral letter urging the immediate passage of the bill on electoral reforms as well as the appointment of a credible chairman and members to the Commission on Elections. It urged the faithful, in the May election, to vote according to Christian principles for candidates who were “pro-God, pro-life, and pro-family”—a code phrase for those opposed to the government’s family planning program. The preelection statement on April 9 dropped this phrase but urged the faithful not to vote for opportunists, those who had grievously hurt the country (i.e., Marcos people?), and entertainers. As in the earlier statement, it supported the civic and church-based groups, the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), the People’s Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPC-RV), and VOTECARE, all of which were working for clean and honest elections.

It is well known that at least one national lay Catholic organization and some prominent bishops campaigned for the defeat of the senatorial candidate Dr. Juan Flavier because of his aggressive promotion of population control and sex education as secretary of Health. The results of the elections suggest that this negative campaigning had some effect, but not nearly enough to push Dr. Flavier out of the “magic 12.” As on other occasions, the Filipino voters made up their own minds.

Finally, in July 1995, the bishops returned to the issues raised prior to and during the Cairo Conference, this time in the context of the United Nations International Conference on Women, in Beijing.


Space limitations have forced us to focus mainly on the national scene, principally on the CBCP and the national government, in this discussion of church-state relations.

Cardinal Sin has come into the picture occasionally because of his high profile nationally and the key role that he played at EDSA. Nevertheless, the optic that we have chosen did not catch his vigorous and effective lobbying for the urban poor, for example, in the passage of the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, the trenchant political and soc1al commentary in his public addresses, nor his role as a fiscalizer of the Ramos presidency on issues such as criminality. We have also been forced to overlook much of the church-state interaction that takes place at the local, provincial, or informal level, such as the very interesting case of appointment of parish priests as forest guards in Bukidnon, a role that has cost one priest his life.

Our presentation may have given the impression that the bishops were acting under some sort of divine inspiration and, therefore, were always of one mind on the issues. In fact, outside experts were normally invited to speak on the topic suggested for a pastoral, and there was often vigorous debate within the CBCP before the letter was finally released. Even with regard to the famous postelection statement on February 1986, there was a small but determined minority of bishops who disagreed; one of them, with the EDSA uprising under way, was still determined to attend President Marcos’s inauguration, only to be frustrated by a subordinate who disappeared with the keys to the car! Similarly there are some bishops who are uncomfortable with the high-profile political stance of Cardinal Sin. Again one prominent archbishop, in a meeting with his priests, has criticized the CBCP for not taking a stronger position on the fraud that seemed evident in the 1995 senatorial election. Thus the possibility and reality of debate and dissent within the CBCP—unless the process is somehow short-circuited, as in the case of the 1990 pastoral on population—strengthen the authority of whatever consensus does emerge.

The pastoral letters and statements that have been noted here could well serve as a review of the issues faced by the restored Philippine democracy during its first ten years. It can hardly be doubted that they were motivated by a sincere desire initially to help stabilize the regime and also to move the country toward social and political reform by peaceful means.

They were invariably framed within the context of the bishops’ pastoral responsibilities and appealed to Christian values. Thus they can be seen as a continuing effort to provide a moral center, to build and maintain a consensus on basic values. We noted at the beginning of this essay that earlier generations would have rejected the notion of separation of church and state as leading to irreconcilable divisions within society, and that the American experiment presupposed a general consensus on a basic Judeo-Christian value system. That consensus may now be breaking down, as dramatized by violence directed against abortion clinics and actual killings in the name of the defense of unborn life.

The pope made a similar point in his speech before the United Nations this year: “If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law the human heart is precisely that kind of ‘grammar’ which is needed if the world is to engage in this discussion of its future.”

The letters and statements probably also articulated the sentiments of the “centrist” majority of Filipinos. Moreover, they were issued by a body that had a very high “trust rating” among the people: in nationwide surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations in 1988 and 1989, for example, the Catholic Church received the highest trust rating of all the institutions listed—higher than the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Armed Forces, colleges and universities, big business, and the mass media, among others.

Yet it is difficult to say how much of an impact these letters and statements had. Certainly they did not prevent many of the worst elements of the past from taking root again in Philippine political life, nor did they bring about radical social reform. Pastoral letters read in church do not have the same impact as Cardinal Sin’s call for the people to assemble at EDSA in February of 1986, for example. This may be due in part to the fact that the bishops were calling for a change in values, something deeper than a change in rulers.

It may also be due to the lack of an effective organizational structure within the church, for discussion of issues, mobilization, and action. From this point of view, the key to the future may be the Catholic organizations and those of Catholic inspiration, from the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference, for example, at the national level, down to the Basic Ecclesial Communities in the far-flung barrios, and thousands of nongovernmental organizations and people’s organizations scattered around the country.

That, however, is another story.

Carroll, John J. “The Light of the Gospel on Public Issues.” In Engaging Society: The Sociologist in a War Zone, 227-46. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006.

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