Sin’s uncertain legacy

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In 1986 the first people power revolt removed Ferdinand Marcos from power. In 2001 the second ousted Joseph Estrada. The late Jaime Cardinal Sin whose first death anniversary the Catholic Church marked the other day (June 21) was a leading figure in both.

In 1986, the cardinal issued a call for Filipinos to protect then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and then Armed Forces Vice Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos. Both had withdrawn to Camps Aguinaldo and Crame, respectively, after Ferdinand Marcos’ discovery of their supposed involvement in a coup plot against him .

Primarily because it was anti-communist, Sin’s attitude towards the Marcos regime had been ambivalent until the assassination of former Senator Benigno “:Ninoy” Aquino. He denounced some of the regime’s excesses, but was often photographed in Palace functions. He called attention to the growing poverty of the Philippines and government corruption, but insisted on a Church policy of “critical collaboration.”

Following Ninoy Aquino’s murder in 1983, however, Sin echoed the outrage most Filipinos felt against the Marcos regime, and encouraged them to protest authoritarian rule and its abuses. When Enrile and Ramos broke with Marcos in 1986 following the fraudulent snap elections in February that year, and called on him for support, Sin called Filipinos to EDSA.

Sin was again instrumental in mobilizing Church people and unorganized Filipinos in EDSA in 2001, which led to the ouster of Joseph Estrada from the presidency. Sin had been more consistent in his opposition to an Estrada presidency, and in some ways far more outraged over his womanizing, drinking and gambling than over anything else. But he did predict before the 1998 elections that an Estrada presidency would be “a disaster” for the country.

But neither EDSA led to the making of a just and prosperous society, the robust democracy the end of dictatorship promised, or the honest and competent leadership that has long eluded the Philippines. As recent events are proving, neither has led to the reform of this country’s most damaged institutions either—or made any difference in the conduct and character of Philippine politics.

The traditional politics of money, violence and fraud dominant before 1972 has mutated into far more vicious forms. Runaway corruption has put the Philippines on the map of the world’s governance-monitoring organizations, among them Transparency International. TI has not only named some Filipino politicians among the most corrupt in the world. It has also put the country on second place in Asia in its roster of the most corrupt countries.

The same political elite represented by Marcos and the traditional landowning classes remain in power, resisting the most basic changes and generally governing with only its familial and class interests in mind. To protect those interests, it is savaging the right to free speech and expression and curtailing press and media freedom. With the collaboration of an unreformed police and armed forces, it is rampaging in the countryside, turning a blind eye to the killing of journalists, and most probably orchestrating the killing of political activists whose participation in mainstream politics its is trying to halt despite the party list law.

Philippine society remains at a virtual standstill as a consequence. The distribution of wealth is one of the most skewed in Asia. If not checked, the current birth rate will result in a population of 200 million within 50 years or less. Social unrest persists as a consequence—but is being met with a mailed fist policy that views poverty as the consequence of unrest rather than its cause.

If both EDSAs, specially the first, are permanently associated with such personalities as Sin, Corazon Aquino and the stalwarts of civil society, it is inevitable that their failures should be laid at their doors. It is doubtful, however, that the expectations of those Filipinos who ousted Marcos in 1986 and Estrada in 2001—a living democracy based on popular support, a government that would preside over the liquidation of the bastions of privilege and the structures of exploitation that had kept the majority of Filipinos poor and disempowered– were at all among Sin and company’s intentions.

Sin’s vision for the Philippines was fairly limited. He was leery of radical change, as is the Church for which he spoke—and which incidentally has been a force against change for much of its time in the Philippines. His involvement in politics was moved by a desire to keep the Church relevant in changing times as well as to counter the growing influence of liberation theology among rank and file priests and nuns.

Before 1983 he seemed content only with demanding political reforms from the Marcos regime rather than on the dismantling of the dictatorship. He somewhat naively thought that Marcos’ Catholicism could keep his appetites in check. But when the opportunity came to demolish the dictatorship, he took it in 1986 in the realization that its participation would help assure Church influence and relevance in the post-Marcos period.

He was not mistaken. Church influence may have diminished in the post-Aquino Ramos and Estrada governments, but it has recovered several times over in the Arroyo regime. Church opposition to artificial means of family planning is practically regime policy. The impending abolition of the death penalty death convicts owe at least partly to regime perceptions of Church influence. Even more basically does the regime owe its survival to the Catholic bishops’ decision not to demand Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s resignation last year.

These and the Church’s continuing power in Philippine society and politics are part of the legacy of Sin as Church leader. But the value of that legacy and its continuing relevance is still being debated. While Sin could not have deviated from the Church position on family planning, for example, it is threatening to permanently alienate those who believe that population growth is as crucial an issue as structural reforms in combating poverty.

But the question many Filipinos are asking, as the Philippine political and economic crisis intensifies, is why the Church as Sin helped shape it in the post-Marcos period has so far not been rigorous in the defense of human rights. It is a question screaming for an answer as evil ravages the land, and the Church does little to stop it.-##

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