In 1986, the church under the leadership of Jaime Cardinal Sin supported the candidacy of former President Corazon “Cory” Aquino and played a major role in a non-violent resistance that toppled the 14 years dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Thirty-six years later, the Marcos family is back in power! What happened?
The Catholic Church in the Philippines has traditionally exerted great influence in the political life of the country. This influence began to waiver starting with the large support for and the passing of the Reproductive Health bill in 2012, as well as, the victory of President Rodrigo Duterte, an avid critic of the Church, in the 2016 elections. In the 2022 elections, in order to prevent the return to power of the Marcos family and aware of the massive disinformation that has been happening, some members of the clergy, religious, and Catholic associations have tacitly endorsed Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo as she is well qualified, has a good track record of service to the country, and free from any taint of corruption, besides being the more winnable opposition candidate. I will not delve into the issue whether this partisan position is justified or not. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines held 5 years after the People Power Revolution qualifies that the distinction in the roles of clergy and laity in politics “is not always clear-cut in real life…as when the bare enunciating of moral principles becomes, because of circumstances, in actuality an act of partisan politics” (PCPII Acts, #344). The difference, however, between the 1986 and today’s elections is there are not just two candidates but ten, with the pre-election polls showing a massive support for Marcos Jr.
The election returns sadly showed an overwhelming number of votes in favor of the son of the former dictator. CBCP Episcopal Commission on Social Communication Chairman Bishop Marcelino Antonio Maralit referred to this as a “‘slap in the face’ of the Church’s local hierarchy.” Has the Church lost its moral voice?
During the election campaign, I was actually struck by how parishioners would openly argue with their pro-Leni parish priests’ political posts on facebook. This is something relatively new in our culture. Traditionally, Filipin@s defer a lot to the parish priest who is seen as a figure of authority in the community. In rural places, the power and authority of the clergy and the Church have even been deemed magical or extraordinary.
Social media has changed the attitude of people toward authority figures in the same way that access to other sources of information, has, for instance, in the past in Europe, led to the laity becoming more critical and independent of the parish priest. In agricultural feudal societies, the priest was among, if not the most knowledgeable person in the community. He is the source of people’s knowledge of what is right and wrong. When universities were established in the Middle Ages, people obtained more access to other sources of knowledge of what is right and wrong. Furthermore, with the publication of religious and spiritual books, and the development of mass media, people no longer have to depend solely on their parish priests for information about the spiritual and moral life. Today, the change has become more radical with the introduction of computer-mediated communication where access to information is now at one’s fingertips. Moreover, this mode of communication is not just unidirectional but multilateral, fostering discussion and exchange of ideas, and reflexivity or a re-examination of one’s stance vis-à-vis other ideas or information you have encountered on the web.
This can actually be a positive development since people will not just blindly obey whatever authority figures say but they can now become more critical. What is different, however, in the context of the past election was the massive disinformation that was happening in social media. This means that the bases of people’s discernment are not facts but lies and historical distortions. These lies spread even to those who did not have direct access to YouTube, Tiktok or Facebook. The church as well as the opposition, were not able to counter early on the institutionalization of disinformation under the Duterte presidency and the rebranding of the Marcos family name that has been launched as early as 2012.
A second major difference in the post-Marcos and post-PCP II era has been the waning of conscientization efforts, use of structural analysis, and the dissemination of the Catholic Social Teaching in the Church’s pastoral practice. Many basic ecclesial communities have become solely liturgically-oriented. There have been less and less of the liberational BCCs that engage as well with questions of social injustice and human rights. These BCC-COs were linked with NGOs that did community organizing as well as employed structural analysis that examines the root causes of poverty in the country (economic, political, and socio-cultural) from a synchronic and diachronic perspective. They have been the most active in resisting the Marcos dictatorship and in addressing the structural problems of the Philippine society. The use of structural analysis is crucial for example to understanding the 1980s debt crisis and its toll on the Cory Aquino government that succeeded Marcos Sr. The demise of BCC-COs is linked to the clampdown by the Church – because of fear of Communist infiltration – on BCCs that are not directly under the Church’s supervision. Not enough mediating structures have replaced the BCCs to concretize the Catholic Social Teaching on the level of communities of the faithful.
The post-Marcos period has witnessed as well the growth of trans-parochial movements, such as Charismatic communities. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in 2001 notes that “some new movements tend to see witnessing only in the realm of the purely spiritual” and need “more formation especially on the social teaching of the Church.” But from a larger perspective, the above shifts were fostered not only by the disillusionment in the grand narratives of the “left” with the fall of the Berlin wall, but also by the past two Popes’ opposition to liberation theology and its ideals.
In a sense, on the one hand, the Church indeed got disconnected from the faithful as it was not able to engage them early enough in social media and address the issue of disinformation and historical distortion. On the other hand, it has also lost its moral voice in failing to adequately educate and organize the faithful to address issues on faith and politics.
 CBCP, Church Renewal (Manila: CBCP, 2001), 146.