Marcos's Sin and the Papal Tour

Like a timid Shakespearean character, Felipe Ruiz seemed destined for anonymity until events thrust a touch of greatness upon him. After allegedly killing a Spaniard, Ruiz stowed away on a ship of Dominican friars bound for missionary work in 17th century Japan. The little band of Catholics found the Japanese less than hospitable, and Ruiz, refusing to denounce his religion, was burned at the stake with his newly found companions. He might have been little more than one amoung countless church martyrs except that Pope John Paul II will be arriving in the Philippines in early February to make Ruiz the first man beatified outside of the Vatican.

The significance of the Pope's long-awaited tour goes beyond the immediate impact of John Paul visiting an 85 per cent Catholic country under seven years of martial law. While all other Filipino institutions independent of Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship have withered, the Church has emerged reluctantly as the only mass-based organization that can and will oppose the government. And so, long after Ruiz joins his Dominican friends on the road to sainthood, the Pope's visit may fortify the position of the anti-Marcos clerics whom many hope will serve a critical role in ending the martial law regime. Or, the papal tour may become the denouement of this festering feud.

When Marcos first seized power in 1972, most of the Catholic clergy went along with him, as the country seemed to be sliding into anarchy and economic oblivion. A few of the more liberal clergy protested--the government raided a small number of convents and seminaries and shut down some members of the Catholic media. Jaime Cardinal Sin, head of Manila archdiocese and leader of the Filipino church, the papal Nuncio, and most others in the Catholic hierarchy, however, saw Marcos offering a much needed purgative and they issued declarations in his favor. Gradually, though, as a result of an demic of human rights violations, Marcos's "New Society" has tried the clergy's patience.

Increasing numbers of churchmen, from laymen to cardinals, have involved themselves in the numerous detainees groups, legal protection associations, and private appeals for mercy. Marcos's nebulous definition of subversion mixes activist priests and naive college students with communist guerillas and Muslim rebels. The government's war against Muslim secessionists in Mindinao has killed thousands of civilians, uprooting tens of thousands more. This has brought several of the country's most respected bishops into a running battle with the government over military abuses.

Government authorities readily labelled all such opposition as the work of the "Christian left." Certain sisters do talk of "the proper political analysis" and "liberated areas" under the control of Communist insurgents. Yet the clergy's gradual but wholesale antigovernment shift over the past few months rebuts the charge. The weather vane of the change in sentiment is Sin himself. A political loner advised by a select group of businessmen and ex-Supreme Court Justices, Sin has moved away from his "critical collaboration" with Marcos. Now he raises directly questions about Marcos's health and the choice of his successor, asserts that Marcos's only support comes from the military, and registers his disapproval of Imelda's blatant ambition to succeed her husband. One leading opposition politician noted that with each public statement Sin moves further apart from the government, creating momentum for an even stronger attack to follow.


Without any desire of being an ayatollah, Sin and the Filipino church have found themselves forced by circumstances into being the spiritual benefactors of the opposition. During the seven years of martial law Marcos has effectively uprooted the country's alternative institutions. The major press organs were bought by Marcos supporters, the minor irritants closed. The first couple and their friends have Somozaized the economy, grabbing everything from the power companies to the gambling casinoes. The powerless opposition politicians lack organization and publicity; the once fiercely independent local governments now have appointed mayors, miniscule budgets, and they have even lost such traditional responsibilities to the federal government as licensing neighborhood markets and slaughterhouses, and maintaining police and fire departments.

And so with the press and local politicians finished as alternative courts of appeal, Filipinos have turned increasingly to the Church, gratifying the activists and nudging the moderates towards the opposition. In places like Quiapo and Baclaran in Manila, in battle-ridden provinces like Samar and South Cotabato, Filipinos have always trudged to mass to pray for such amenities as rice and cooking oil. Now they ask the Church to help them find missing relatives or intercede with the military so they can return to their evacuated farms.

The hardline Marcos opponents among the clergy are still a minority at all levels and in all orders, but the sympathy of the silent majority, of whom Sin is the spokesman, is shifting towards their side. With increasing unity among its hierarchy, the Pope's divisions can demonstrate their power. Buttressed by the weaker publications and radio stations, the Church possesses institutional stability and a nationwide reach. Several leading opposition politicians readily admit to using Catholic and Protestant churches to distribute suppressed materials and hold illegal meetings. They also benefit from a certain "halo effect," gaining credibility because of their association with the Church.

In fairness to the government, the Church is able to carry on in this manner because the Philippines does not have martial law in the classic sense. There are no tanks or heavy military presence in the streets, except in the seccessionist areas, and only the anonymous political prisoners undergo torture. Instead the government uses more subtle means to curb the Church's criticisms. Marcos's underlings raise the legaliztion of abortion and divorce and the expansion of birth control programs to increase their leverage with a church solidly opposed to such measures. Without ever adopting such issues and further unifying Catholic opposition, Marcos teases the church by raising then stooping the liberalization bills.

The most serious dampener on anti-government church action is the very fact that there is a sizeable pro-Marcos bloc, which forces the moderates to balance the two groups' demands in order to avoid polarization. Through generous dispensation of money, and granting of favors the government lobbies certain churchmen as if the were U.S. Congressmen. Imelda even has a Jesuit speechwriter.

Faced with such a scenario many of the more radical Marcos critics among the clergy have actively opposed John Paul's visit and still bridle at what they see as Sin's timidity in mobilizing the Church's vast resources. Several bishops, including one from as far away as South Korea, originally wrote to the Vatican urging the Pope not to come, because Marcos would inevitably explot the visit. Since his acceptance, others are preparing "position papers" to be sent to the Vatican outlining the issues. All Marcos needs is one picture of himself smiling alongisde the Pope and Sin, they reason, and the government controlled press will do the rest. The majority of moderates, however, look to the Papal visit as a means of strengthening their hand, and uniting the church. Citing the strong stands the Pope took on the issues confronting Mexico, Poland and the United States, they find it only logical for him to take a diplomatic but firm stand in opposition to martial law an in favor of human rights. Other details of the trip fall in their favor. The custom for John Paul's foreign trips has been for local churchmen, aware of local nuances and catchwords to ghostwrite his speeches, subject to Vatican revision. Once again, events forcing him to act, Sin as the country's leading prelate will control who drafts the addresses. In addition, the Cardinal has made at least one trip to the Vatican to discuss the visit.

John Paul's visit to the Philippines will serve as the rope for a church-government tugof war. Marcos will try to reap maximum exposure. The church under Sin's direction will try to steer the Vatican away from such exploitation and use the visit to close ranks among its own members. If Marcos oversteps his bounds, he may trigger a more severe church reaction. Several clergy fear the Marcos's may ask the Pope to conduct their daughter's wedding ceremony. One of Sin's closest advisers suggested that the Pope may visit political detainees to make a definitive statement. This would mark the cardinal's abandonment of any pretense of cordiality with the regime, a move he has so far made efforts to avoid.

The onus of responsibility clearly falls upon the Church. Marcos needs only the most minimal publicity to exploit, while the Vatican and Filipino clergy must take active steps to avert any disasters and then convey their message despite the government's press monopoly. If all goes as planned by the moderates, the visit will legitimize further the ongoing campaign to lift the martial law, if not force Marcos out altogether. Considering the President's stranglehold over the economy and the military, this is indeed a long campaign.

Sin and the moderates see their role as not to influence any future government or to control events, merely to help return the country to a more normal situation. Otherwise, they see in the long run the growing political and economic instability precipitating a violent leftist insurgency or a succession of military coup d'etats. Both clergy and anti-government people agree, the outfight agitations of the liberals and Sin's cautious campaigning do not raise questions of an improper mixing of church and state, or even of meddling in politics. As one opposition politician said, "All politics ended in 1972. This is a moral issue."

Michael D. Kendall '79, a former Crimson editor, recently spent one month in the Philippines on a Shaw Fellowship.