IN a development little noticed by the United States press, the Roman Catholic bishops of the Philippines have endorsed President Corazon Aquino's land reform program. For Mrs. Aquino, whose land reform proposal is controversial, such news is welcome. In the Philippines, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, the church is capable of exerting profound political influence. The scope of Aquino's proposal is enormous - 3.4 million acres of agricultural land, including sizable sugar and coconut plantations, will be redistributed. The program promises to be more far reaching than earlier land reform efforts. The Philippine Congress must pass enabling legislation to handle such sensitive issues as maximum retention limits for landlords.
While Aquino's initiative is welcomed by tenant farmers - the intended beneficiaries - the prospect of effective land reform has angered landlords; they will oppose it through their representatives in Congress, or, as some have vowed, through armed resistance.
Such opposition is entirely predictable. Less so was the endorsement of the Catholic Church, an institution which has traditionally been identified with the interests of the political and economic elite. Until relatively recently the church was extremely conservative on social issues. Ironically, the change in attitude was due largely to developments during the long tenure of Ferdinand Marcos, Aquino's discredited predecessor.
The corruption and brutality of the Marcos years fed the leftist, rural-based rebellion that continues to threaten Philippine stability. As conditions worsened, more Filipinos, primarily from the impoverished countryside, joined the Marxist New People's Army. Joining them were many Filipino priests and nuns, angered by Marcos-era abuses and cynical both about prospects for peaceful change and the traditional political posture of their church.
While the emergence of rebel priests was an extreme form of protest against the government, it was simply the most dramatic sign of discontent among the religious rank and file. Increasingly, other priests and nuns worked in cooperation with a variety of left-leaning opposition groups, and the apparent merger of Christianity and Marxism worried the church's hierarchy - for good reason.
For the deeply religious Filipino peasantry, a Catholic veneer gave the revolution increased legitimacy and greater potential for success.
If successful, the bishops feared a result similar to that in Nicaragua, where ``liberation theology'' has, in essence, replaced or undermined Catholicism's traditional lines of authority.
At the apex of Mr. Marcos's power, the hierarchy faced a serious dilemma. Although the bishops grew increasingly restive about the related problems of government abuses and religious defections, and started to criticize, however meekly at first, the Marcos regime, there was serious doubt about the church's power to effect genuine reforms. Yet the only other alternative - armed rebellion in league with the left - was an anathema.
This inertia, potentially dangerous, given the growing polarization of Philippine society, was finally removed when Benigno Aquino (leader of the opposition and husband of the current President), was assassinated in 1983. The murder was widely believed to have been the work of Fabian Ver, Marcos's chief of staff. At that point, the Philippines stood dangerously close to civil war, while the democratic opposition, without Mr. Aquino's steadying hand, was divided and incapable of competent leadership.
Within this vacuum, the Catholic hierarchy, under the leadership of Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, started to assert its political strength and played a critical role in unifying and guiding the opposition. The efficacy of the church's political role cannot be denied. In 1984, the church endorsed elections to the National Assembly which, despite widespread government fraud, resulted in significant opposition gains.
A year later, when a ``snap'' presidential election was announced and the opposition was undecided about its presidential candidate, Cardinal Sin reportedly broke the impasse by supporting Corazon Aquino. During the election the church again urged Filipinos to vote and, more important, to ignore government attempts to buy their ballots.
The rest, of course, is a remarkable, often-told tale: Mrs. Aquino, a former housewife with no previous political experience, won election to her nation's highest office. She is a devout Catholic and her piety - consonant with popular values, beliefs, and attitudes - carried tremendous political capital.
For the church, which has a chance to heal the divisions of the Marcos years, it is clear that the lessons of the past have not been forgotten, chief among which is that faith cannot be separated from social justice. The bishops' position on land reform and other social initiatives reflects this. While the former will face a difficult time in Congress, opponents would do well to heed what is now a fundamental political principle:
When the bishops speak, everybody listens.
Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.