Marcos Jr. and the Catholic Church: Unfinished Business

Jhe late Metropolitan Catholic Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin (1928-2005), liked to play the inevitable jokes on his name. “Welcome to the House of Sin”, was once his happy greeting to guests of his official residence. But there was nothing funny about his voice when he appeared on Radio Veritas, the Church’s broadcast arm, on the night of Feb. 22, 1986.

He was not on the air to deliver a homily or a prayer. Instead, Sin told listeners that two high-ranking military defectors were locked up at Camp Aguinaldo, a military base just northeast of the Philippine capital. He asked the faithful to surround the camp and protect the men of the troops loyal to the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

“If any of you could be around Camp Aguinaldo to show your support at this crucial time, where our two good friends have shown their idealism, I would be very happy if you could support them now,” Sin said.

Read more: The Rise, Fall and Rise of the Marcos Family

Soon after, thousands of civilians began to turn up at the camp perimeter, kicking off what would become known as the People Power Revolution – a bloodless democratic uprising still hailed as an example of what that a determined people can do.

Over the next few days, nuns could be seen in the streets, praying on their rosaries as they placed flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles. The priests served as an intermediary between the angry protesters and the fierce military. As one of the few outlets to survive Marcos’s crackdown on the press, Radio Veritas broadcast minute-by-minute coverage of the uprising. On the evening of February 25, Marcos fled with his family to exile in Hawaii, where he died in 1989.

The Church in the Philippines had overthrown a dictator.

Catholic worshipers attend an Ash Wednesday service at the cathedral in Antipolo City, the Philippines, March 2, 2022.

Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Catholicism and Politics in the Philippines

Catholicism in the Philippines is a legacy of Spanish colonial rule, which ended in 1898, and today at least 80% of the country’s 110 million people profess the religion. They form the third largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil and Mexico, and the largest Catholic congregation in Asia.

Some 71% of Filipino Catholics regard religion as very important in their lives. With the glaring exception of autocrat Rodrigo Duterte, who became president in 2016, politicians have unsurprisingly sought the Church’s blessing.

“It shows how strategic it is for politicians to be seen as religious,” says Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist of religions at Ateneo de Manila University.

But while Catholic organizations in the Philippines have in the past been able to organize effective opposition to legislative measures that run counter to Church teachings – on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion – the political power of the Church seems to be declining today.

In the run-up to the 2022 presidential elections, Clergy for the Moral Choice, a group of more than 1,000 Catholic clergy from across the archipelago, backed progressive candidate Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo against her rival, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.— the son of the late dictator. A few days after the May 9 elections, it became clear that Church support had not worked. Although he has yet to be officially declared the winner, Marcos Jr. leads the vote tally by a huge margin.

Much of its success has been attributed to the social media campaign led by its mostly young supporters, who spread misinformation on platforms like TikTok to whitewash the notorious legacy of the Marcos family. The Church was simply overwhelmed.

Read more: Why the world should care about Marcos’ victory

Monsignor Melchor David, parish priest of the Diocese of Parañaque and member of the Clergy for Moral Choice, says that in the time of the elder Marcos, the Catholic media had “more reach, compared to now, when the trolls have more of range.”

Evangelical mega-churches also compete with the Catholic Church for influence. One of these groups, the kingdom of jesus christwas founded by Apollon Carreon Quiboloywho is on the FBI’s most wanted list for alleged child sex trafficking. The group endorsed Marcos Jr.’s presidential candidacy, and a television station he owned, SMNI, hosted the only presidential debate the candidate attended.

The birth control debate was another reality check. The Philippine Conference of Catholic Bishops (CBCP) has strongly opposed the passage of a law mandating the public availability of contraceptives, despite a March 2014 decision survey this showed that over 70% of Filipinos supported the law and 84% believed it was the government’s duty to provide free family planning to the poor. Despite objections from the bishops, the law was fully enacted in 2021.

“It showed the limits of the institution when it comes to politics,” Cornelio told TIME. “The political leadership of the Catholic Church has evolved in such a way that it is no longer the moral conscience of the nation. That was in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, that seems like a pretty big assumption to make.

Meanwhile, incumbent President Duterte has gone after the Church for most of his term, normalizing what were once unthinkable attacks on a sacrosanct institution. He called Pope Francis is a ‘son of a bitch’ for causing traffic jams during a papal visit in 2015. When the Church began to denounce the brutality of Duterte’s drug war, he inundated bishops and swearing priests. He even made crude remarks about the rape of an Australian nun killed in a prison riot.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. addresses his supporters during his final campaign rally, May 7, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila

Getty Images—Getty Images 2022

The Church in the Philippines under Marcos Jr.

The new administration seems ready to maintain an antagonistic stance towards the Church. Days after CBCP President Bishop Pablo Virgilio David wrote a pastoral letter warning against any betrayal of the People Power Revolution, a spokesperson for Marcos Jr. accused the Church of “s ‘meddle’ in politics, claiming clergymen had ‘abused the pulpit’.

Father Jojo Gonda, from the southern province of Batangas, says clergy have come under “massive attacks” from pro-Marcos parishioners. “They are angry with us priests, who support [Robredo]and they don’t speak well of us.

But the decline of the Church’s political influence need not necessarily be irreversible. Sociologist Cornelio believes that his ability to mobilize at the community level and his consistent moral positions in a time of technological change give him an advantage.

Read more: Why the West will work with Ferdinand Marcos Jr

“If misinformation is our problem, then you need incisive, deep and respectful conversations at the community level,” he told TIME. “That’s how you fight misinformation.”

Religious faith is also a powerful motivating force that Marcos Jr. cannot afford to ignore.

Father John Era, a 50-year-old seminarian in Quezon City, says he was too young to participate in the uprising against Marcos Jr.’s father, recalling that he felt jealous of those who may have been part of the ” celebration.” Now, however, he says he has the “gospel truth” on his side and will defend it if necessary.

Seeing Marcos Jr. elected, Father John says, made him relive the emotions of 1986. “I didn’t participate then,” he told TIME. “I want now.”

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Jerry B. Hatch