The cross and the sword
Hardly anyone noticed when Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle held an Epiphany Mass at the Manila Cathedral and addressed rehabilitated drug addicts who, in turn, gave witness to their experiences in the Fazenda da Esperança (Farm of Hope), a Catholic drug rehabilitation center in Masbate. Caritas Manila then signed an agreement with Fazenda to assist Sanlakbay, the drug rehabilitation program of the archdiocese launched last October.
It was a pointed statement but an overlooked one because it was pastoral and not politically pugnacious. The dilemma of the Church seems to be the New Code of Canon Law of 1983 of Pope John Paul II which replaced the Code of Canon Law of 1917 of Pope Pius X.
Among other things, it eliminated the Right of Sanctuary, a privilege of sacred spaces asserted since medieval times. Originating in ancient times, it put the Church forward as an institution capable of tempering arbitrary punishments and persecutions. Violating sanctuary carried with it the penalty of excommunication. Kings hated it; but in time the concept evolved into what we know as the right of asylum. Pius X abolished this penalty; John Paul II removed sanctuary, quite possibly because it was causing too many confrontations with modern legal systems in countries like the United States.
The result is that bishops and priests believe they have no means to counter warrants or searches by the police, much as they might want to save lives by offering refuge to drug addicts and help them undergo rehabilitation.
For the first time in a generation, the Church has faced two administrations firm on upholding secular policy. Former president Benigno Aquino proved unyielding in his support of reproductive health. President Duterte is frankly hostile to the clergy, pointedly speaking of pedophilia, which serves as a not-so-veiled warning against political interference by the hierarchy.
It is said that Ferdinand Marcos kept a copy of a divorce decree in his desk drawer and pulled it out whenever bishops were becoming too critical. In the end, whether true or not, the fact is, the arrest of members of the clergy and violations of human rights drove the Church to oppose Marcos and withdraw “the mandate of Heaven” after the 1986 snap elections. Fifteen years of intervention in secular affairs followed, culminating in Edsa Dos in 2001.
The passing of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the reduction in size of the archdiocese of Manila, and a new generation of prelates easily coopted by then president Gloria Arroyo dismantled the political clout of the Church.
Not since the era when the Philippine Revolution was still living memory has the Church been so weak. In 1938 a showdown between the Palace and bishops—over teaching Catholic catechism during class hours in public schools—resulted in a threat of a veto, and the National Assembly backed down. By 1949, faced with a proposal to liberalize the divorce law, Catholics mobilized and Congress abolished divorce. Secular forces rallied and passed the Rizal Law in 1956.
But in the same year President Magsaysay led the consecration of the Philippines to the Sacred Heart of Jesus just as he had led the consecration of the country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1954; the Church found itself once again a pillar of the State. From 1983-2001 it actually decided the fates of governments. Now it is attempting to find its voice. The approach of Cardinal Tagle may not be exciting, but it may be not only the most prudent but the most democratically-consistent option as well.
The other pillar of the State is the armed forces. Here, too, in contrast to the adventurism of the past three decades, a new kind of maturity seems to be holding sway. By all accounts, institutionally, it is more committed to civilian control, more averse to political interference and, most surprising of all, more firm about human rights than it has ever been since before martial law.
This is a recent phenomenon, but one deserving further study. The two most conservative institutions in the country, as one senior journalist told me, seem to be holding the line for our fragile democracy.