Catholic Church

Filipino bishops hit China in sea row, say ‘allies’ needed if diplomacy fails

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Filipino bishops hit China in sea row, say ‘allies’ needed if diplomacy fails

HOLY MASS. Archbishop Socrates Villegas celebrates Mass marking the 40th year since the assassination of former senator Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr., at the Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City on August 21, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

In a rare move, the Philippines’ Catholic bishops speak out on foreign affairs – criticizing China and appealing to the West – to defend ‘our poor fisherfolk’ against ‘Chinese aggressors’

MANILA, Philippines – Filipino bishops rebuked China in a rare statement about the West Philippine Sea dispute, and said it is “morally permissible” to take refuge in “the friendship of allies” if diplomacy fails.

The statement, dated Thursday, February 8, but sent in advance to reporters over the weekend, was signed by six Roman Catholic bishops who serve in areas surrounded by the resource-rich West Philippine Sea – part of the South China Sea that belongs to the Philippines but is claimed by China.

Leading the signatories was Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, one of the country’s most prominent Catholic leaders.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Taytay, Palawan, a politically outspoken bishop who was former auxiliary bishop of Manila, also signed the statement. The other signatories were Iba Bishop Bartolome Santos Jr., San Fernando de La Union Bishop Daniel Presto, Puerto Princesa Bishop Socrates Mesiona, and Lingayen-Dagupan Auxiliary Bishop Fidelis Layog.

In their joint pastoral exhortation, the six bishops said the issue involves not only fish and aquatic resources, but the lives of the country’s fisherfolk. The Catholic Church “stands with them,” the bishops said.

“A policy of appeasing the Chinese aggressors is worsening the situation of our poor fisherfolk,” said Villegas and his five brother-bishops.

‘Friendship of allies’

In addressing this situation, the bishops said, “We seek peace, and it cannot be a moral option to wage war.”

They said it is also unjust for the country’s leaders “to allow our own fisherfolk to be driven out of fishing grounds over which international law recognizes our rights.” In mid-January alone, the China Coast Guard reportedly harassed and drove away Filipino fishermen collecting seashells near Bajo de Masinloc, a traditional fishing ground 124 nautical miles west of Zambales.

Filipino bishops hit China in sea row, say ‘allies’ needed if diplomacy fails

“All legal means must be exhausted so that what nature has so bountifully bestowed on us may be ours and may feed generations of Filipinos yet to be born, and if present diplomatic efforts do not suffice, then it is permissible  – morally necessary even – to have recourse to the friendship of allies who can help us defend what is ours!” the bishops said.

The bishops were making an apparent reference to Western countries, such as the US, that have sought to counter China’s moves in the Indo-Pacific. Leftist groups, to which many the Philippine Catholic Church are allied with, have often resisted US intervention in the West Philippine Sea dispute, but defense and security analysts have said it is one of the best deterrents to China’s moves.

Rare move

The statement was an exceptional instance when bishops in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, spoke out on foreign policy. In most other instances, Catholic bishops have made statements on mostly local sociopolitical issues, following the lead of giants such as Villegas’ mentor, the late Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, who helped in toppling the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

This comes at a time when the Vatican is troubleshooting ties with Beijing over the appointment of Catholic bishops, a touchy issue handled by the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Dicastery for Evangelization, where Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, former Manila archbishop, is pro-prefect. 

Toward the end of their statement, however, the six bishops made their purpose even clearer: it was not about foreign policy per se, but about the people affected. At this point, the bishops shifted languages – from English to Filipino, from a commentary on foreign policy to an impassioned appeal to Filipino Catholics, including the fisherfolk themselves.

Nananawagan po [kami] sa mga kapatid sa pananampalataya na ipagtanggol ang karapatan ng mga dukhang mangingisda, saklolohan ang kanilang buhay at kabuhayan, at itaguyod ang kinabukasan ng mga mangingisda at kanilang mag-anak,” the bishops said.

(We call on our brothers and sisters in faith to defend the rights of our poor fisherfolk, safeguard their lives and livelihoods, and uphold the future of our fisherfolk and their families.)

The Catholic leaders likewise reminded the fisherfolk of their responsibilities, cautioning them against destructive fishing.

Mga kapatid na maliliit na mangingisda, panindigan po natin ang ating karagatan at palaisdaan. Hindi tayo busabos ng mga banyagang magnanakaw ng ating huling yamang-dagat. Huwag tayong mangisda sa pamamagitan ng paraang nakakasira sa buhay-marina,” the bishops said.

(Our dear brothers and sisters among small fisherfolk, let us uphold our seas and our fisheries. We are not slaves of foreigners who steal the marine resources we catch. Let us not fish using means that destroy marine life.) –

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I appreciate the six Roman Catholic bishops who made the statement. In particular, is this specific statement: “It is ‘morally permissible’ to take refuge in ‘the friendship of allies’ if diplomacy fails.” I hope that those allies (especially the U.S.) will not leave us in case of a war against China.

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email