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The political legacy of Cardinal Sin

Philip Bowring

THURSDAY, JUNE 23, 2005
HONG KONG The death of Cardinal Jaime Sin is a reminder that organized religion plays a bigger role in the politics and social affairs of the Philippines than in any other country in Southeast Asia. For all the talk of Islamic fundamentalism in neighboring Indonesia, Islam as a political force is fragmented.
 
In the Philippines on the other hand, the centralized Roman Catholic Church is a powerful vehicle, and was never more so than under Cardinal Sin, who was archbishop of Manila from 1974 until his retirement at the age of 75 in 2003.
 
In that role he is praised in the obituaries mostly for his support for democracy and clean government. As a political priest, he is best remembered for his crucial roles in the so-called People Power revolutions that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and forced the overthrow of President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Sin liaised with the leaders of the revolts, encouraging the participation of priests and nuns in street demonstrations and using broadcasts of the church's Radio Veritas to support the movements's program.
 
He combined conservative theology with genuine concern for the poor, an amiable demeanor and the ability to play elite politics. He was appreciated at home for being known and respected abroad. But critics may conclude that one of his lasting legacies will be the church's contribution to the Philippines' failure to match the social and economic progress of most of the rest of Southeast Asia.
 
Sin came to high office in the early days of Marcos's martial law government and long saw himself less as an opponent of the regime and more as a "critical collaborator," willing to make critical comments and to oppose Imelda Marcos on such issues as allowing the sale of condoms in corner stores. But he accepted the reality that Marcos was the head of state.
 
His middle-of-the-road stance not only reflected his own natural inclination but was necessitated by a division in the church between a very conservative wing favorable to an authoritarian government and a left wing sympathetic to the "liberation theology" of the period and even to the Communist insurgency that flourished in the latter days of Marcos.
 
The leading role that Sin played in the overthrow of the freely elected Estrada was even more pivotal - and more controversial. Corrupt and incompetent though Estrada was, his toppling could well be interpreted as an elitist conspiracy against a president and a Senate that came to power through a democratic election.
 
However, it is for his success in using the state to enforce Catholic doctrines in a nation where about 25 percent of the population are non-Catholic (Protestant, Muslim and local nationalist churches) that his impact may have been as great. Persistent opposition to "artificial" family planning ensured that government efforts in the 1990s to reduce the birth rate, and to prevent the spread of AIDS, were reversed.
 
The overcrowded archipelago's poverty is at least partially attributable to population growth that is still more than 2 percent a year, by far the highest in East Asia, despite the emigration of hundreds of thousands of women of child-bearing age.
 
Likewise, the Philippines remains one of only two countries not to allow divorce. Leaving aside the question of the rights of Catholics themselves, this is a major infringement on the civil liberties of non-Catholics and akin to the enforcement of Shariah law on non-Muslims in Muslim countries. The church has also enhanced the sense of alienation of Muslim Filipinos from a nation that is so overtly Catholic.
 
The opposition to divorce also flies in the face of the reality that unofficial liaisons are so common as to be barely worthy of mention. The mores of a pre-Christian society are still strong in the Phillipines. Before the church arrived with the Spaniards, serial monogamy was the norm, and divorce (at the instigation of either party) was easy. Most pre-Spanish women were literate in the local script until literacy became the preserve of priests and officials.
 
Piety and religious feeling run strong in the Philippines, and for many the church is a genuine friend of the poor. But this devotion exists side by side with an erosion of support for the formal church, which has been losing ground to other sects.
 
Nor did Sin's role in the ouster of Estrada help the Catholic Church among many of the poor, who were Estrada's main supporters. The reverberations for Filipino democracy of the dubious way that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power are still being felt.
 
Sin's moral stances were for many admirable in a country whose leaders often seem to lack such a compass. But in a country where 75 percent of the people are nominal Catholics, it may also be important for the head of the church to leave political issues to Caesar rather than play the Caesar-maker.
 
 
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