Catholic Church

[OPINION] Marcos and the Church

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] Marcos and the Church
'These Christians are drawn to BBM because of his promise of greatness, the reclaiming of an imagined glorious past...'

A few months ago I wrote an open letter to Christians voting for Bongbong Marcos. It was meant to be a respectful appeal. 

My message was simple. While reconciliation and forgiveness are pillars of the Christian faith, neither Bongbong Marcos nor his supporters can lean on them. They castigate BBM’s critics for digging up the past and take comfort in the man’s message of “national healing.”

But their message of forgiveness, I proposed, is flawed. Every time they bring up forgiveness, they in effect dismiss the atrocities of the past as if they were all an inconsequential blip in our history.

They conveniently forget too that an intimate relationship exists between forgiveness and justice. While forgiveness might be an individual decision, justice is a social responsibility.

This lesson should be basic to any Christian. 

But based on the comments online and the many messages I received, I know that my piece affected many in the faith community. One person even called me “un-Christian” for maligning BBM’s reputation. Others dismissed the entire piece and accused me of promoting “hatred and unforgiveness.”

The fact that Christians today are divided over BBM should not come as a surprise. Even in the time of his father, Christians of all stripes diverged on martial law. Months before the elections, I believe that it is important to be reminded of how Marcos’ dictatorship divided the faith community.

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Collaboration, resistance, and everything in between

A few influential Catholic leaders, for one, believed in Marcos’ New Society. 

No less than Rufino Cardinal Santos, Archbishop of Manila, claimed that Marcos’s vision was “in accord with the Sermon on the Mount and the new commandment of love.” He thus concluded that it should be “hailed and welcomed by every peace-loving citizen.” For endorsing the state’s call for discipline, these clergy were often invited by Malacañang to grace its events. In effect, their endorsement gave the regime the moral legitimacy it needed.

“Critical collaboration,” by contrast, was the path many in the Catholic hierarchy took. 

In principle, clergy who embraced this position were willing to work with the government but were also ready to denounce its excesses. Jaime Cardinal Sin was convinced that it was possible to do both because he believed that he had moral influence over Marcos; in fact, he had regular access to the President to discuss matters of the state. He also believed that Marcos was “bright, brilliant, and not emotional,” therefore a reasonable man. 

In the 1970s, bishops criticized many issues, including the intrusion of foreign capital, the presidential decree banning strikes, and the 1975 referendum on the powers of the president.

But Sr. Mary John Mananzan describes critical collaboration as all talk and no action. She calls into question, for example, Cardinal Sin’s early position on public protests. In fact, the Archbishop of Manila did not support any political protest because he thought it could escalate into a civil war, which, in his view, would only lead to greater suffering among the poor. 

At the same time, Sin thought too that any resistance led by Ninoy Aquino could only empower either the military or the communists to take over. These were to him unacceptable alternatives. 

Because of the hierarchy’s dualistic position, adopting critical collaboration clearly made it difficult for others in the clergy to be more confrontational. In the words of Bishop Francisco Claver, “We fiddle with trivialities while ‘Rome burns.’”

And then there were the “critical minority.”

In contrast to the former, they directly organized communities affected by martial law, including farmers and laborers. The work of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) attests to this. 

At the same time, while the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in 1972 called on Filipinos “to remain calm and law-abiding,” other bishops took a bolder position. Within a week of the declaration of martial law, these bishops sent the President a separate letter:

Like you, we want a new society. This is what we are for…What we are bothered about is that the “new society” you speak of had to be brought about by force, by the restricting mode of martial law. From our experience with our peoples, we stand convinced that no lasting change of heart ever comes from change decreed by fiat. True conversion comes only from persuasion and good example, from internal and willing acceptance, not from fear or coercion.

Other Christians

What about Protestants and evangelicals?

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), an ecumenical group of different Protestant denominations, was from an early period critical of martial law. In fact, it was the first ecclesial body to oppose it formally. NCCP did so in 1973, at the time when many of its ministers and church workers were harassed and even imprisoned.

In spite of this boldness, however, the reality was that some of NCCP’s own leaders initially welcomed Marcos’s martial law. 

Although they did not represent the council, that they were its churches’ leaders was more than enough affirmation for Marcos. Heads of denominations affiliated with the NCCP such as the Philippine Independent Church, the IEMELIF Church, and the United Methodist Church signed a resolution in 1972 declaring that “the President of the Republic of the Philippines is God’s servant to carry out His will in the nation.”

But it was not long before NCCP formalized its resistance. When it did, it earned them the ire of the state. Government forces raided NCCP offices around the country, detained their leaders, and even expelled foreign missionaries like Reverend Paul Wilson who worked with their local congregations.

Within the evangelical community, by contrast, political awakening took shape at a much slower pace. 

To be sure, evangelicals were present at EDSA in 1986. Evangelical groups like the Konsensiya ng Febrero Siete (KONFES) were led by Melba Maggay of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC) and Isabelo Magalit of the Diliman Bible Church (DBC). These were politically involved evangelicals. 

But many of their evangelical peers generally remained silent on the political situation, even until 1986. According to David Lim, much of it could be explained by evangelical theology, which emphasized “personal salvation” at the expense of “social or cultural issues.” This, in his view, was the legacy of American evangelicalism in the Philippines. 

This quietism was indeed reflected in the pronouncements of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC). Even in the early 1980s, PCEC discouraged the participation of the evangelical community in public protests. In fact, even during the 1986 snap elections, the evangelical council issued a “Call to Sobriety” to respect whatever the results might be. 

It was not until the height of People Power in late February when the council had a change of heart. In a statement it asserted the following:

Where Caesar conflicts with Christ, we declare that Jesus is Lord. Divine law supersedes human law. Therefore our obedience is not absolute. Whenever government rules contrary to the will of God, then civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.

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The minority

Today Christians remain politically divided. At the center of this division is Bongbong Marcos, the dictator’s son who ironically promises national healing. This, as I have stated above, should not come as a surprise. 

What lessons can we learn then from these divisions? There are two.

First, many Christians are fully convinced that BBM is the hope of the country. In this sense, they are no different from the clergy who endorsed the dictator’s New Society in the 1970s.

These Christians are drawn to BBM because of his promise of greatness, the reclaiming of an imagined glorious past that was unjustly interrupted when the forces of EDSA took power. Thus, at a closer look, one finds that their political worldview hijacks a thoroughly Christian storyline: the resurrection. 

In this worldview, the father may have died but they are all grateful that the son is here.

They forget the fact that BBM is a liar. They don’t see that his promises are empty. And they dismiss the fact that he was a beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth stashed away in Swiss banks. The point is that for these Christians, his narrative of greatness is too seductive to resist.

The second lesson is that BBM’s popularity should not render the rest of us helpless. There are still many of us who see through the lies. Our vocation may not be the most fashionable, but it remains noble.

Those who resisted the dictatorship stood their ground. 

And it pays to be reminded that they began as a minority. They struggled and then they prevailed. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and a 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist awardee of the National Academy of Science and Technology. This piece is based on his chapter in The Marcos Anthology, forthcoming with the Ateneo Press. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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