The Philippine Catholic Church threw everything into the 2022 presidential election. Clerics broke with decades of political neutrality to speak out against the campaign of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the island’s infamous dictator. Thousands of priests, bishops, deacons and nuns supported his main opponent, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo. The top lay council promised to give her “the Catholic voice” on May 9 – a hypothetically powerful bloc for a country that is 86% Catholic.
But it never happened.
Weeks before polling stations opened, many bishops were gearing up for disappointment. At a secret meeting in Manila on April 6, prelates brooded over projections showing the vast, consistent lead of the Marcos camp. The question they faced then is the same they face today as the late dictator’s son gears up to take office on Thursday: What will be the role of the Church in a new Marcos era?
Why we wrote this
Should a church lead its flock both politically and spiritually? In the Philippines, a new Marcos administration has Catholic leaders rethinking decades of inactivity and taking on more responsibility in the political sphere.
For the past month, bishops, priests and lay leaders have struggled with the loss of the elections and reflected on their future responsibilities to the congregations. While some see the election results as a signal that the Church is no longer relevant in the political sphere, religious leaders are seeking to correct the course through a slew of new programs designed to monitor and promote good governance—something that many in the higher echelons of the church hierarchy agree that it is lacking in their 21st century ministry.
Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, a sociologist of religion at Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, says the Catholic Church “misunderstood the real sense of community” and “overestimated its authority” during the recent elections. He believes that the Church’s political influence can be restored by organizing and mobilizing the community at the local level.
“The Catholic Church has the largest reach and network in the country,” says Dr Cornelio. “It has the capacity to rally the masses and has a consistent stance on social justice, peace and good governance. That is an advantage.”
From revolutionaries to “play it safe”
The best example of the mass power of the Church was in February 1986, when Cardinal Jaime Sin played a pivotal role in ousting Ferdinand Marcos Sr. by calling on the public to protect two high-ranking military defectors. Millions of people flooded the streets in a day-long demonstration known as the People Power Revolution. The nonviolent uprising ended the dictator’s 21-year rule and remains a proud moment for a church labeled as “ultra-conservative.”
But veteran journalist Jose Torres Jr., who has covered the church since the late 1980s, says Catholic leaders “played it political and it safe” after the 1986 uprising. “In reality, it was not political neutrality,” he says. “It was silence and passivity.”
The Marcos campaign forced many church leaders and faith organizations to break that silence by collectively supporting a presidential candidate for the first time since the early elections of 1986.
Reverend Angelito Cortez says the bold move was “led by the church’s prophetic role” to “uphold moral and democratic values.”
“The church and its leaders became instruments of oppression because we protected our own interests—our convenience. We have not balanced our duty as a moral compass of society and the inclusive and inclusive Church,” said the Franciscan priest. “We had to come out and guide our community in choosing the right leaders for the country.”
In the junior Mr. Marcos saw many as a candidate who lacked integrity and compassion.
Reverend Edwin Gariguez says that church leaders Ms. Robredo supported “not because Marcos Jr. is the dictator’s son, but because he continues to deny the atrocities of his father’s regime and refuse to apologize for the abuse,” which included torturing dozens of people. thousands of activists, journalists and others who opposed the regime.
“It is our responsibility and moral duty to speak the truth against power,” he added. “It’s how the church should use its influence and faculty.”
Despite the Church’s efforts to create a “Catholic voice,” Mr. Marcos traces his family’s journey back to the pinnacle of political power. Ms. Robredo won in only 18 of the 86 dioceses nationwide.
The loss “shows that the Catholic Church is no longer the moral conscience, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Dr. Cornelio, adding that the public today is not used to a church that “meddles in politics”.
For Bishop Marcelino Antonio Maralit, the head of the Social Communications Committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), it raises troubling questions about the credibility of the church hierarchy.
“If what we are really fighting for is the truth and the moral choice,” he wonders, “what happened? Why couldn’t we reach and influence the majority of our countrymen?”
He sees the election as a wake-up call.
“Maybe we are already disconnected from our people. … We don’t speak the same language anymore,” he says, adding that the challenge to church leadership now is “not getting the message out, but bringing the message in. From the people to the hierarchy, not the other way around.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re pulling out of the political pulpit. In a pastoral letter after Marcos’ victory, the CBCP said the role of the religious sector in nation building “doesn’t end with the election”.
“Let’s gradually change our political culture,” the prelates wrote. “If we maintain a negative view of politics and belittle our efforts, we will not achieve positive results.”
The way forward
To initiate this transformation, Caritas Philippines, the social action arm of the CBCP, is launching a ‘good governance’ program. The organization will present the details and design of the program before the CBCP plenary meeting in July, but some efforts are already taking shape.
At the General Assembly of National Social Action on June 14, more than 240 social action workers from 71 dioceses decided to establish a “ministry of good governance” at the parish and diocesan level. Pastor Antonio Labiao, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines, says the ministry will serve as the backbone of the nationwide movement to encourage church leaders, including lay leaders, to participate in local government.
The sweeping good governance initiative will also include campaigns against misinformation and historical revisionism, officials say, as well as post-election accountability programs that check whether elected officials keep their promises.
“Another goal … is to influence politicians and breed champions of good governance,” said Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, national director of Caritas Philippines, acknowledging the program “is a huge undertaking.”
If leaders and lay faithful can abide by Caritas Philippines’ ambitious programs, political strategist Christopher Dy-Liacco Flores says the Church will succeed in creating not only the elusive “Catholic vote” but also “Catholic candidates.”
As for Marcos’ upcoming government, Church leaders are going to face the next six years with a spirit of tentative cooperation.
“We cannot be on extreme sides,” said Bishop Bagaforo. “Collaborating with the government does not mean colluding with them. … It is how we must manage our responsibility as Church leaders to our people, and our obligations as Filipinos to our nation.”