Philippine church woos business leaders in contest with Marcos

The influential Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, locked in battle with the government over the issues of human rights and poverty in the country, has found an ally in another powerful group - the private business sector.

A growing number of business executives and associations have come out with criticisms of the government's economic policies and are fast gaining popularity among the business community. And if indeed the church musters the support of private business, the alliance could become a formidable moderating force to President Ferdinand Marcos's administration.

Jaime Cardinal Sin, head of the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, has challenged businessmen to join with the church in its effort to realign the government's economic and political priorities. He was talking to the Makati Business Club (MBC), a prestigious group of executives from the country's major corporations.

''Too long have we in the church and you in business gone our separate ways, thereby diluting our respective contributions to nation building,'' the cardinal said.

Cardinal Sin's invitation has not fallen on deaf ears. An MBC official told him the club may be able to lend support to the church's attempt to maintain dialogues with the government. Jaime Ongpin, president of one of the largest mining firms and himself an MBC official, also defined the businessmen's role in relation to government.

''If those of us in the private sector who are in a position to help solve our nation's problems do not lift a finger,'' he said, ''the government by default will act alone, and we will have no right to complain in the future if things get worse instead of better.''

In the Philippines the Catholic Church has been an effective opposition force against the 17-year rule of Mr. Marcos, as it is the only group whose influence pervades even the most remote corner of the far-flung Philippine archipelago. It commands a following of about 40 million Filipinos out of a population of 50 million, so that in a confrontation between church and state, the church might well have significant political influence.

But relations between church and state have deteriorated since the government accusation that the church's political activities are getting out of bounds, to the extent of flirting with the communist insurgents in the rural areas.

Indeed, the church has plunged deeply into the realm of politics, helped along by the ideas of Pope John Paul II giving greater emphasis to human rights and social justice, and by the emergence of what is known as liberation theology - first translated into action by priests in Latin America. But the trigger factor was the deteriorating economic conditions in rural areas.

Catholic bishops have given the Marcos administration failing marks for the protection of human rights and the reduction of poverty, especially in the rural areas. And many priests and nuns have come out of their cloisters to work with the rural poor.

An official of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, the ruling body of the church hierarchy, admitted that in the rural areas, church workers come in direct contact with communist insurgents, resulting in their flirtation with Marxism and with the perplexing liberation theology. The bishop did not condemn the new theology but warned that some of the Philippine clergy have gone to the extreme, advocating armed struggle.

''But armed struggle is not recognized by the Catholic Church in the Philippines,'' he said.

Relations between church and state have new reached a very low ebb following the spate of arrests late last year of priests and nuns alleged to be involved in insurgent activities in the rural areas. There is a threat of stalemate as the bishops have withdrawn from the Church-Military Liaison Committee, the body that has served as venue for dialogue between the two institutions. The bishops also issued a controversial pastoral letter that, for the first time, stated the church's criticisms of specific political and economic policies.

Now, with the possible alignment of the church and the private business sector, the communication line could be reopened. The alliance could also strengthen the church's leverage on human rights and wealth distribution. But how far the church-business sector alliance could go remains to be seen. After years of dialogue with the government, the church on its own failed to get the government reforms it had hoped for.

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