Filipino Catholics Debate Role

Roman Catholic left and right are at odds over enormous problems facing the country

THE political and economic discord besetting the Philippines is also shaking the powerful Philippine Roman Catholic Church. Entrenched by 300 years of Spanish colonial rule and espoused by 85 percent of the 60 million Filipinos, the church remains the Philippines' most trusted institution, political analysts say.

The church was at the center of an uprising four years ago, which drove strongman Ferdinand Marcos from the country and lifted a reticent widow, Corazon Aquino, into power.

Yet the ensuing national disarray has plunged Catholic leaders and intellectuals into a flurry of soul-searching, political and religious observers say.

Controversy surrounding Cardinal Jaime Sin, the outspoken Manila archbishop, has quickened debate over the church's role in the crucial 1992 presidential election.

As in other predominantly Catholic countries, the Philippine church's hold on its followers is slackening because of apathy and the growing popularity of evangelical sects. On the volatile issue of family planning, Filipinos are less willing to follow church dictates against artificial birth control, social observers say.

Within the church and in government, the Catholic right and left are increasingly at odds over mountainous economic problems, a political system gridlocked by the landed elite, and disillusionment among the millions of poor.

"The church sees that the situation has deteriorated so badly that we must do our part," says Francisco Claver, a maverick bishop and a Jesuit scholar at the Institute of Church and Social Issues in Manila. "The problems of the nation are the problems of the church."

Just how activist the church should be was at issue in the recent uproar over an apparent endorsement by Cardinal Sin, the church's most prominent leader. The prelate has enjoyed clout with the devout Aquino since helping her to power in 1986.

Although revolutionary activism has yet to reach the scale of the church in Latin America, some groups have called for massive social and economic restructuring and espoused the violent politics of communist insurgents.

Sin kicked up a rumpus by criticizing Mrs. Aquino, who says she will not run for reelection next year, and urging that the next president be young and a man. That was widely read as an endorsement of Oscar Orbus, Aquino's executive secretary and possible candidate in a crowded presidential field.

In a Monitor interview, Sin described Aquino as "a mere housewife," who personally remained above the corruption of Philippine politics but did little to change the system.

"The expectation was too high," the prelate said. "You cannot expect anything from someone not prepared for the position."

Sin's remarks dismayed politicians, political commentators, and some church leaders, who insist the church should not be backing any individual among the possible presidential candidates, who include two non-Catholics.

Although refraining from an endorsement, Sin said the country had to "infuse young blood in the body politic" and called for establishing criteria for political leaders. He insisted he would continue to speak his mind.

"Separation [of church and state] is best for the country. But separation is not isolation," he said. "If I was not archbishop of Manila, I would not speak out. I will do my job until the time comes when I will keep quiet: when I'm in the grave."

Political analysts say the reaction to Sin's past statements signals that Filipinos are beginning to question the cardinal's brand of personal politicking.

Mahar Mangahas, who directed the survey, wrote that many Filipinos "have highly ambivalent feelings about the propriety of church participation in public affairs."

"The pulpits are still listened to in this country, especially in the provinces," says Teodoro Benigno, a political commentator and former spokesman for Aquino. "But the church doesn't seem to be united now the way it was against Marcos, and Sin alone doesn't speak for the church anymore."

Indeed, church leaders admit that even in a traditional Catholic country like the Philippines, monolithic moral authority is giving way to a variety of voices. Many left-leaning clergy are frustrated with the government's lack of progress on land reform, equitable taxation, and other pro-poor policies.

At a church congress in February, many leaders criticized politicians for stalling social reforms and warned that change in the Philippines semi-feudal society will come only with a new breed of younger, more principled politicians.

Issues such as the Philippines staggering foreign debt and the future of the American bases are also splitting the church. A survey of two-thirds of the country's 125 bishops, done last year by Bishop Claver, showed the prelates almost unanimously in favor of some sort of limit on debt payments.

That sets the bishops at odds with the powerful Finance Secretary Jesus Estanislao, who says a unilateral debt moratorium would hurt the country's ability to secure new financing and reform the economy. Mr. Estanislao is linked to Opus Dei, a right-wing Catholic lay organization.

On the question of American bases, the Claver survey showed most bishops favoring a phaseout of the US bases, whose lease expires in September. Sin favors the bases, noting that most Filipinos support the facilities, which bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Most telling is the emerging divide over birth control policy, religious observers say. In the Philippines, where the population is growing at a rapid 2.3 percent clip, church dominance, as well as government bungling, has slowed family planning.

But Aquino overrode the bishops' objections last year and strengthened the government's population control program, citing a couple's freedom of choice.

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