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 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
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
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.
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.
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