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Church Takes Stronger Role as Philippine Political Crisis Grows

September 03, 1986|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — Cardinal Jaime Sin, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholics who make up the overwhelming majority in the Philippines, seemed more politician than priest as he stood before 10,000 worshipers just after dawn.

As he sermonized from the pulpit Friday on the 400th anniversary of the historic Quiapo Church in downtown Manila, the cardinal openly conceded that he was campaigning.

'My Candidate, Jesus Christ'

"I come here today to rally for my candidate, Jesus Christ," Sin shouted to the congregation, made up largely of peasants and laborers. "Who, after all, can give you complete happiness? Only Jesus Christ."

Then he took the analogy a step further.

"Satan is also a candidate," he said. "He promises you pleasure and lust and money. . . . Money divides people. . . . You may possess money, but do not allow money to possess you. Power is money, and money is power."

Finally, to a standing ovation, the cardinal raised his hands and declared, "So today, I call on all of you: Vote for Jesus Christ."

There is, of course, no election on the political horizon in the Philippines, which is governed by President Corazon Aquino and an increasingly controversial Cabinet that assumed power last February after the overthrow of Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Powerful Role

The church, however, continues to play a powerful role in the Philippines, and Sin's analogy reflected this.

According to several religious leaders, his sermon made it clear that the church has undertaken a major campaign to mitigate, and perhaps at the same time to gain from, the growing political crisis--a near-vacuum of leadership at almost every level of society.

Sin contends that this situation is threatening to destroy what the people gained by ousting Marcos.

"The threat of losing the hard-earned freedom and of the return of the worst kind of evil is still hanging over our heads," Sin said in a homily on Aug. 22.

"Alas, the post-revolution period shows people returning to their old, selfish ways," he continued. "Gone is the mutual concern, gone is the generosity, the spirit of sacrifice that once bound us into one. Disunity shows its very ugly head. . . . The gains of the February revolution are little by little being lost."

100 Days of Prayer

The homily, apparently aimed at divisive and unresponsive local officials appointed by the Aquino administration, opened what the church calls "100 days of prayer and penance for the nation."

It clearly stunned many in Aquino's government who relied heavily on the church's support in last January's presidential election and again in the Feb. 22 civilian-backed military revolt. In the six months since, as Aquino has tried to consolidate her rule, the government has continued to rely on the church.

The sermon and the 100-day campaign have touched off a new round of controversy over the role that the church has begun to assume not only in the nation, which is 85% Catholic, but in the government as well.

'Visible Involvement'

Renato Constantino, a prominent Filipino historian, said recently: "The Aquino government was installed in the wake of a church-backed military revolt, and since then there has been a visible involvement of church elements in matters that properly belong to the state.

"The prominence of the Catholic Church in non-religious matters raises the question of separation of church and state. . . . Unfortunately one does not know how far the church can go before the president decides that it is . . . interference. Pretty far, it seems."

Aquino herself is responsible for much of the power that the church enjoys in her government. A devout Catholic who often refers to the Bible in her speeches and gives credit to God for the revolt that brought her to power, the president has priests and bishops among her inner circle of advisers.

She appointed a nun, a priest, a bishop and two Protestant ministers to the 48-member commission that is drafting a new constitution, prompting Constantino to charge that "the constitutional commission today has become an arena for religious indiscretion."

Birth Control, Taxes at Issue

"Commissioners identified with the Catholic Church," he said, "are trying to sneak in provisions that . . . exempt religious schools from taxation, to preempt family planning policies and to impose religious instruction in public schools."

Church involvement in matters of state has grown to encompass even the Communist insurgency in the Philippine countryside. Priests have taken a leading role in negotiating several regional cease-fires.

In return, the church has been among Aquino's staunchest supporters. Priests, bishops and the nation's two cardinals have said repeatedly, while criticizing the drift of the nation in general, that Aquino is the best possible leader for the country today.

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