The Period of Awakening and Prophesying (1976-1986)

To be sure, the authoritarian regime was a novel experience to the CBCP, and if from 1972 to 1975, its statements and letters were moderately tame in face of a worsening, greatly reshaped socioeconomic and political situation, it was not simply because they were compromise documents, but, to view them more deeply, more because of the different ecclesiological frameworks and their corresponding pastoral implications, within which the bishops approached the issue of martial law. Some chose to support it (“the conservatives”), others preferred to collaborate with it critically (“the moderates”), still others rejected it (“the progressives”). That this was so can be argued from the statements of the individual bishops. But these different ecclesiological approaches came to a head in 1976. (The first CBCP president during these difficult years was Cardinal Julio Rosales; he was succeeded in 1977 by Cardinal Jaime Sin [1977-1981], Archbishop Antonio Mabutas [1981-1985] and Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, who assumed office in 1985). It would seem that serious impact was being made by the ecclesiology or, more accurately, ecclesiologies which developed after the Second Vatican Council, especially those enshrined in such documents as Populorum progressio (1967), the Medellín (1968), which gave birth to the Theologies of Liberation, Octagesima Adveniens (1971), De Iustitia in Mundo (1971), and Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975). In a deeper sense, this largely explains the different, sometimes conflicting, statements of the individual bishops and the two controversies that year. The first one, in which the Administrative Council was rumored to have had a deal with Malacañang, was triggered by the deportation of two PIME missionaries. The other was occasioned by a statement of the Administrative Council (28 September 1976) which urged citizens to vote in the referendum as a moral obligation, and which was thought to be in contradiction to “A Declaration for Human Dignity at the Polls” signed by 14 bishops. The latter called the referendum “a vicious farce.” The right of the Administrative Council to issue the statement was questioned by 12 bishops on 6 October 1976. These conflicting ecclesiologies were later exemplified in “Ut omnes unum sint,” a letter of 4 November signed by 17 “progressive” bishops as a response to the joint letter of Cardinal Sebastian Baggio of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Cardinal Eduardo Pironio of the Sacred Congregation for Religious. What the letter pointed out was hardly reconcilable with the content of “Et veritas liberavit vos,” a letter written by two “conservative” archbishops the following month. (The rift, it may be conjectured, was not lost to Marcos who, after the massive boycott in the 16 October referendum, retaliated against the Church by deportation, raid, closure of radio stations and publications, as well as arrest and detention of lay workers.) Chiefly for this reason, the January 1977 meeting of the CBCP was preceded by a colloquium which brought to conclusion the bishops’ thinking on the Church’s involvement under the martial law regime.

From 1977 to 1982, the CBCP became more united and its collective approach to the challenge of martial law is best described by Cardinal Jaime Sin’s policy, namely, “critical collaboration,” although, in the light of the bishops’ letters and statements, it was largely more critical and prophetic than collaborative. Even though at this point in time it did not yet question the legitimacy of the regime, the CBCP, no doubt, was in touch with the concrete historical experience and the aspiration of the common people. At the same time, it became obvious that in its understanding of the role of the Church in the socioeconomic and political order, it was not only development but, more accurately, it was integral liberation, and the CBCP became more committed to it. Its statement of its mission in the January 1977 pastoral letter, “The Bond of Love in Proclaiming the Gospel,” deserves to be quoted: “This is EVANGELIZATION: the proclamation, above all, of SALVATION from sin; the LIBERATION from everything oppressive to man: the DEVELOPMENT of man in all his dimensions, personal and communitarian: and, ultimately, the RENEWAL OF SOCIETY in all its strata through the interplay of the GOSPEL TRUTHS and man’s concrete TOTAL LIFE (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 9, 29). THIS IS OUR TASK. THIS IS OUR MISSION.” This shift to the liberationist understanding of ecclesiastical mission can be noted even in the themes of Alay Kapwa in the early 1980s: “Communal Action Toward Human Liberation” (1980), “Beyond Poverty into Total Liberation” (1981), and “People’s Participation, a Way to Total Human Liberation” (1982).

This, to be sure, constitutes a significant advance from the cooperative and development thrust in the late 1960s. But in this January 1977 pastoral letter, the CBCP sharply criticized the government population program, the treatment of national minorities, the handling of the Mindanao situation, the harassment of basic ecclesial communities and the disregard for the human rights of evangelization workers. And it is not without significance that the Conference viewed the establishment of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), which the military perceived as part of the alleged attempt by the radical clergy to build a revolutionary base, as springing from the mandate of the Church’s mission. For all the harassment and the efforts to suppress them, it held the lay workers essential in the implementation of that mission. This teaching marks a change from the pre-conciliar one in which lay apostolate was understood to have been derived from the mandata of the Hierarchy. (This would become more fully developed in the next period, especially in the Second Plenary Council which fostered “the empowerment of the laity” and promoted the BECs as a way of being Church.) Clearly, as a body, the CBCP awakened to its mission of liberation and assumed the role of “a prophet to the nation.” The year 1977 may then be considered a turning point in the CBCP history. Henceforth, the Conference no longer engaged in generalities with regard to political problems; it did not remain at the level of pronouncing principles, as it did for instance in 1969. Instead, it courageously made moral judgment, denouncing the excesses of the regime. As the socioeconomic and political situation continued to deteriorate, and as militarization and repression intensified, the CBCP came out with a pastoral letter, “Exhortation Against Violence,” on 7 October 1979 to stress that the escalating violence in the country had its roots in the unjust structure of society, and that it could be stopped by putting peace with justice to the same structure. Marcos lifted martial law in 1981, but this was merely a cosmetic (it was most likely timed for Pope John Paul II’s first pastoral visit to the country on 17-22 February when Lorenzo Ruiz, the Filipino protomartyr in Japan, was beatified at the Rizal Park), for the dictatorial effects were well in place. In fact, the following year was a bad one for the Church, for it endured not just threats to its legitimate interests, like the campaign to legalize divorce in 1976 or the threat to tax Church-owned schools and hospitals, but what amounted to Church persecution: arrests and detention of priests (more than 50 of them by 1976), layworkers, and activists; raids of institutions; attempts at infiltration; accusation of communist infiltration in the Church; trial by publicity in the media, etc. In other words, the CBCP was now paying the price for prophesying.

By 1983, the year in which many Filipinos (cause-oriented, mass-based, party-based, etc.), as a result of the tarmac incident, were mobilized in the struggle for freedom and justice, the CBCP understandably became even more prophetic and scathingly critical of the martial law regime. And it may be conjectured that the Pope’s sociopolitical messages during his visit two years ago could have emboldened the bishops in their concern for the construction of an alternative vision of society. In fact, the CBCP’s posture, as it finally turned out in 1986, was on collision course with that of Marcos’ “Constitutional Authoritarianism.” The Conference was not only, as it were, marching with the people; it was leading them on the march, and it did so credibly. The Church – and probably no other – was looked up to as the bastion of hope. No doubt, the collective ecclesiological outlook of the CBCP was liberationist, and the understanding of its role in the socioeconomic and political order became even more defined. Indeed, it called for the transformation not only of individuals but also of societal structures as part of integral liberation. In the final result, what was under criticism was not simply the individual acts of martial law; the whole structure of dictatorship itself stood under severe criticism. It is not insignificant that from 1983 through 1986, all its joint pastoral letters and statements, except for its statements on biblical apostolate (February 1985) and on the Marian Year (1 February and 6 August 1985), had direct reference to martial law and the major problems it engendered. Not surprisingly, then, the CBCP-Government relationship became increasingly strained.

Thus, on 20 February 1983, it made the first of its strongest indictments against the Marcosian regime in the pastoral letter, “Dialogue for Peace,” even though it was meant as a call to restructure society in accordance with God’s plan. It amounted to an exposé of problems (arrest and detention, disregard for due process, torture, etc.) which have their origins in poverty, anti-people economic program, economic corruption, and unjust laws. It took a clear preferential option for the poor, supporting them in their assertion of dignity and defense of rights. The letter was followed up by the CBCP’s “Pastoral Guidelines for Priests, Religious and Lay Workers in the Task of Social Justice.” As a result of the pastoral letter, Marcos asked the bishops to join him in his development programs, but the bishops made it known that reform of structure was what was in their mind. In the same year, the CBCP withdrew its membership from the Church-Military Liason Committee because of an apparent pattern of government pressure on Church people, especially priests and BEC workers, and activities. With his authority slipping off, Marcos instituted the PCO (Presidential Commitment Order) by means of a decree, which enabled the military to arrest arbitrarily and detain indefinitely. On 7 August, the CBCP, in its message to the people on the exercise of PCO, passed a moral judgment on the presidential decree, calling it, along with its implementation, immoral. (To forestall the reading of this letter in the pulpit, Marcos announced the abolition of the PCO, and hoodwinked the bishops by replacing it with the Presidential Detention Action [PDA] which was scarcely any different in substance.) The second half of 1983 was marked by a worsening of political, economic and social conditions, including the erosion of the government’s credibility, precipitated by the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. With the country on the brink of chaos and anarchy, the CBCP issued a statement of reconciliation on 27 November, calling for a social transformation – transformation of unjust structures and individuals – required by authentic reconciliation with God and with one another as an alternative to the continuance of the present injustice and violence.

Late in the year, the CBCP Administrative Council (28 December) decided to issue a statement on the forthcoming plebiscite on the constitutional amendment restating the office of the vice-president, and the Batasan elections in May 1984. Published on 8 January 1984, it did not fail to mention, among others, the right not to participate in political exercises which citizens consider contrary to their conscience. In terms of political outlook, this is a clear indication of the acceptance of pluralism which the CBCP now recognized as a right. The CBCP itself decided to support the NAMFREL (National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections) in their efforts to oversee the polling and the canvassing of ballots. Meanwhile, the national situation continued to turn for the worst: people were being “salvaged” both by the Left and by the Right: the foreign debt increased to $24 billion; the peso depreciated very much and the economy, already known as “crony capitalism,” was almost bankrupt; the military became a new source of political patronage. Marcos revived the “secret marshals” who were virtually licensed to kill; and he continued to exercise martial law powers through the notorious Amendment 6. At the same time, the “parliament of the streets” became a formidable force, while the forces of the Left were – it was believed – about to reach a stalemate. It is against this background that on 11 July, the CBCP published a letter, drafted as early as January, on the sacredness of human life and its defense: “Let There Be Life.” It called for a revamp of the entire economic and political structure and, in particular, severely criticized the institution of secret marshals (which Marcos later disbanded), the Amendment 6 whose repeal it demanded, and the economy, whose crisis, according to the bishops, could be solved if, in the first place, confidence in the government were restored.

The following year, the CBCP did not issue any pastoral letter or statement which had direct bearing on politics, except the one on terrorism (8 July). In this letter, the CBCP denounced the murder of those dedicated to the service of others, the execution of civilians suspected of collaboration with the Left, the use of cultists in counter-insurgency campaign, and urged the reorganization, if not the dismantlement, of the paramilitary Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF). Early in the year, it released a joint pastoral letter on biblical apostolate (February) and two others on the occasion of the observance of the Marian Year (February and Aug. 6). But the ever deteriorating situation was not far from their minds. In their January meeting, they held a brainstorming on the national problems and searched for positive action regarding them. They discussed such issues as the question of Communism (faith and ideology), violence and non-violence, and such specific questions as the US bases, the Bataan nuclear plant, social justice and social development. The CBCP committed itself to a free, clean and honest election and to support NAMFREL in its work to achieve the goal.

The climax of the CBCP’s involvement and commitment during the Marcosian years came in 1986. When Marcos, faced with a deteriorating situation, an expanding credible political opposition and, under strong American pressure, called for a snap election in late 1985 to give him a fresh presidential mandate, the CBCP took up the issue in their January meeting and on 26 January issued the joint pastoral letter, “We Must Obey God Rather Than Men.” Having stated that elections could become a great scandal and an offense against God, or an event of conversion and national renewal, it urged that the forces of evil bent on frustrating the people’s will should not make them succumb to cynicism, and in the conflict of interests and loyalties, it reminded them to let God’s will prevail. It assured them that the bishops stood with them. Elections were held on 7 February, and as they bishops feared, the fraud and deception were systematic and of incredible proportion. The NAMFREL tally showed Aquino leading by a large margin, but the COMELEC (Commission on Elections) tabulation had Marcos coming ahead. Eventually, the COMELEC computer operators walked out to protest the discrepancy between the input and the COMELEC count. On 12 February, the Batasang Pambansa, which was dominated by the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), declared Marcos winner. The following day, the Bishops drafted a post-election statement and issued it to the public on 15 February. The unprecedented statement labeled the elections as unparalleled in fraudulence, and virtually accused Marcos of criminally using power to thwart the people’s sovereign will. In its strongest condemnation of the Marcos dictatorship, it declared that “a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis.” And in an action without precedence in the history of bishops’ conferences, it called for a peaceful, non-violent and systematic struggle to correct the wrong. The pastoral statement proved to be historic. In a few days, “People Power” was brought forth and the EDSA Revolution was born. Marcos was dislodged, his regime collapsed. Clearly, quite aside from displaying its faith in the power of prayer, the CBCP stood as a moral leader of the people, showing itself as champion of democratic principles. And its celebrated statement became a catalyst of non-violent revolution.

With Marcos gone, the CBCP assumed the role, it may be said, of a moral and spiritual leader and guide in the direction which efforts at social transformation had to take. No doubt, its ecclesiological outlook remained one of integral liberation, and though it continued its policy of critical collaboration under the Aquino government, this time the emphasis was on collaboration. On the whole, it would seem that the CBCP was supportive of the Aquino administration, probably because it had high hopes that it would be instrumental in the renewal of the social order and in the establishment of a more lasting peace. Of course, there is little doubt that the bishops had some influence on President Aquino. She appointed to the Constitutional Commission four people easily identified with the Church. Such provisions in the Constitution as the primacy of family, the prohibition of abortion and divorce, and religious instruction in public schools were indicative of the moral influence of the CBCP. Understandably, with its pro-life, pro-poor and pro-Filipino provisions which are consonant with authentic human values, it was not surprising that the CBCP, after much discussion in a meeting to which some members of the Constitutional Commission were invited to speak, opted in its letter “Covenant Toward Peace” on 21 November 1986, for the ratification of the proposed constitution.

D. The Period of Renewal of Vision for the Church and Society (1987-1995)

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