A Tale of Two Ships: Church and State in the Philippines

Philippine politicians and Catholic bishops seem adrift in their separate ships. The political ship is listing; the lights are going out, and every sensible person on board knows the ship is in serious trouble. The bishops’ ship, on the other hand, is fully lit; the passengers are comfortable; and though the ship appears to move with assurance, it has no destination. A symbol of the church situation was the recent Black Nazarene procession at Quiapo Church. The largest, most exuberant crowd the church has seen in years, nearly a million people, joined the procession. They started at the church, wound in a big circle through the streets and came back to the church. One ship is sinking; the other circles endlessly. Some new strategies and even some heroism seem called for.


Every economic agency that has commented on the Philippine national situation, from the World Bank to the government’s own Department of Economics at the University of the Philippines, has warned that the country is headed for disaster unless it puts its economic house in order by limiting corruption, raising taxes and cutting spending. Attempts over the last seven months to do this have not come close to satisfying these agencies. Such is the view from the top.


At a recent workshop, the N.G.O. partners of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace looked at the country’s problems from the perspective of the ordinary citizen. They categorized many problems into four groups. The first was unbalanced use of natural resources, including land grabbing, abusive mining and logging and exclusion of the rural and urban poor from land. The second was fragile democracy, including problems in militarization, corruption, elite control of government and unfair labor laws.

The third problem area was called homogenization of culture, for want of a better name. This concerns the current trend of alien cultures to swamp the national cultures. The fourth and final area is that of international free trade and the World Trade Organization. This concern was illustrated by the very real fear of the country’s three million rice farmers that unlimited rice imports this year will destroy their livelihood. They know the government is asking the W.T.O. for a delay in the lifting of import controls, but they doubt it is making a truly all-out effort. There are few rich and influential players in rice production.

In the face of such realities there is a swell of distaste for traditional politics. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for example, now receives negative approval ratings, largely because people think she has spent her time since the May 2004 election paying back groups that supported her. She is now more intent on eliminating political favoritism and corruption than ever.

A Trusted Institution

For the church, at least the church in Metro Manila, the problem is not public distaste. Far from it. Some 85 percent of the population is Catholic. Churches are crowded, as always, and vocations are plentiful. The church is highly respected. There are no problems so far comparable to the sex scandals in the United States and Europe. Most Catholics, even poor people, when surveyed find few problems in the church. For example, some poor people interviewed for a study of poverty thought the church was doing a good job even though the parish priest spent only two hours a week among them. (Their community of 7,000 families makes up more than half of his parishioners.)

As the situation in the country worsens, people look for individuals and institutions that can help lead the way to a better life. The church can be such an institution because it is highly respected and trusted and has repeatedly committed itself to being the church of the poor. In fact, it is no nearer to that goal than it was in 1991, when the Second Philippine Plenary Synod made that its number one priority. As late as 2003, Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila acknowledged that the church had failed in this task and renewed his commitment to that effort.

The East Coast Disaster

The ills brought about by traditional politics appear clearly in the recent disaster on the East Coast of Luzon. A series of typhoons tore up the mountains and towns along the coast. A thousand people died and 800 are missing. The scale of destruction was dwarfed by the Asian tsunami, but the Luzon disaster offered many lessons, including proof of the limited scope of the president’s power. Methods of logging that denude the mountains and cause avalanches have been banned for years. The tremendous amount of logging that has gone on despite the ban could not have taken place without the involvement of high-ranking government officials. The president ordered a special task force to stop the logging, but no one believes anything will come of it.

The disaster illustrates the way powerful interests combine with government officials in order to evade law enforcement. The man in charge of the special task force, Gen. Victor Corpus, said he needed witnesses to testify about the illegal logging in order to bring a strong case against the logger many people have singled out as most responsible for the disaster. He promised to shelter witnesses in the government’s witness protection program, but none came forward.

General Corpus seemed defeated, and in late January he resigned from the task force. Other lawyers charge that there has been systematic connivance between the rich loggers and government officials at all levels. Thus, 1,000 people are dead in a tragedy that could have been avoided, if it had not been for the greed of loggers and government officials.

Reluctance to Confront

The church seems more reluctant than ever to come to grips with the state over human rights issues, such as illegal forced evictions and the declining quality of public school education and health services. The reason for the reluctance is not clear. The church is surely not afraid of the state, which needs the church much more than the church needs the state. Some in the church judge on theological grounds that it is not the church’s role to confront government. Others have simply given up hope. Bishop Teodoro Bacani wrote in a column in the newspaper Today on Jan. 20, I know at least one very high church official who does not speak out much anymore or join protests because he has lost hope in the system. The church official said of government officials, and no matter who or what you put there, nothing will change. Still, it is hard to see how any of the major problems associated with poverty can be solved without the government, and without the church taking a leading role in confronting government officials. History shows that there are few other means to move the government to do what it should do.

What to Do

If they are wise, politicians eager to make a name for themselves should forsake the traditional road to political power in the country (wheeling and dealing, party-inspired compromises, coddling of funders, gimmickry) and should tackle the country’s basic problems. These include not only the abuse of natural resources, but also corruption, a military accountable only to itself, unequal sharing of land and power and lack of health and education benefits. Politicians from the Infanta area, for example, should prosecute the guilty loggers and follow the chain of responsibility as high as it goes, even perhaps into the Senate and the cabinet.

They must take personal risks. But the country has enough dead heroes; it needs successful ones. They will have to be imaginative and oblique as well as brave. They must work with lawyers, the church and the media. Most important, they must help the poor organize mass-based, democratic, nonviolent people’s associations and unions so they can take care of themselves.

What can a bishop do? Bishops who want to pursue the goal of making the church a church of the poor will also have to be imaginative and take risks, although so far no bishop has been hurt or jailed for his social action work. The bishop could move out of his bishop’s house and live in a poor slum. He could donate the bishop’s house for a hospital or children’s center. This is not simply a symbolic act. Community organizers are required to live six months in the slums at the beginning of their training. This time is needed to understand the people, their ways and hopes and how to help. A bishop who is leader of the church of the poor would probably benefit from doing this, as would seminarians and priests. They would learn for themselves what the Gospel says to the poor and what it requires of church leaders. They would then be able to communicate what they learn to the powerful, and find the strength to confront the powerful if necessary. They should be seen to be moved by the Gospel and not by any other motive.

Concretely, bishops and priests can be present when poor people are forcibly evicted from their homes and do what they can to stop the evictions. Bishops should establish committees of experts who can issue statements on problems affecting the poor and propose appropriate action. They can perform symbolic actions that capture media attention, as Mahatma Gandhi did, and so teach people what the Gospel says on social problems. In all of this, the church in Metro Manila could thus play a central role in putting pressure on the country’s business and government elites.

In the Philippines such a change of direction would call for new strategies and new heroes. The Philippine president prayed in her New Year’s message that 2005 would be a year of urgent change. Let us hope so.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 11 months ago
As a Filipino American I read with interest Denis Murphy’s article, “A Tale of Two Ships” (3/14). I was impressed with his great honesty, especially regarding the climate of graft and corruption among traditional politicians in the Philippines. There is a disconnect between the faith and behavior of corrupt Filipinos, who take pride in being a Catholic or Christian country in Asia.

Indeed, the church—still “a trusted institution” according to Mr. Murphy—has failed, not only in what Cardinal Jaime Sin himself has admitted about being the “church of the poor” but also in teaching about morality! The Catholic schools, as well as the public schools and the government, have failed the people.

Yet there’s hope. While it is easy for anyone to say what the bishops should do, it is more significant that the bishops themselves realize where they have failed and what they need to do to overcome the problems, especially graft and corruption. The bishops have begun to recognize the need for a conversion of heart: the spirituality of stewardship as a way of life to emerge from the “endless circles.” The bishops, though skeptical at first, now understand that it would be a sin of omission if they did not promote it. According to Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, the challenge is to share stewardship spirituality with the people and to provide a structure in which they can embrace stewardship as a way of life.

Over the last two years I have personally observed powerful conversions among priests, bishops, religious and lay leaders as they effect change and transformation in their own lives and the lives of those around them. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is working in the life of the Philippine church. I am convinced that while it will take time, there is hope that the church may be able to curb the climate of graft and corruption in the Philippines.


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019