September 23, 1972, was a Saturday. But at St. Theresa’s College Quezon City (STCQC), we were at school to make up for unplanned holidays owed to typhoons and mass protests.
The lesson we got was unplanned, too. Scrawled on the blackboards were the words “Martial law has been declared.”
Proclamation 1081, dated Sept. 21, 1972, was not officially proclaimed until the night of Sept. 23. Whoever had scrawled on our blackboards knew more than most did at that point.
STCQC and the nuns who ran it, the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM), had a radical reputation. Word of overnight arrests was shooting through activist networks. That may explain why I don’t recall seeing nuns or teachers that day. Maybe they were at meetings, finding sanctuary for militants, going underground.
I do recall some of us being herded into a classroom by older girls who told us there was no option but revolution: the one led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
This conviction was shared by a number of clergy, religious, and laity of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. Christians for National Liberation (CNL), a Christian Marxist organization, included many of those. Some had already joined the CPP. In 1973, CNL helped found the National Democratic Front (NDF), the CPP’s front of sympathizers.
But neither CNL nor the young revolutionaries of STCQC had counted on their bishops’ interventions. The years 1972 to 1986 were to be a prophetic era for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Admonitions to those held responsible for specific social ills had already marked the bishops’ individual and joint pastoral documents before martial law. After 1972, this escalated into opposition to a repressive state, powerfully motivated by concern that the CPP might offer the only alternative to the dictatorship if the Church offered none.
It was also motivated by the regime’s persecution of the Church. Most was directed at progressives, including those who were not NDF members. But persecution was also directed at moderates and conservatives, if not through threats of violence, then through threats of secularizing legislation, such as a divorce law. This persecution did little to win the CBCP over to the regime’s side. While bishops did rein in some NDF sympathizers in the early 1980s, the CBCP’s ultimate response was to close ranks and move into the antidictatorship camp.
Opposition to the regime was also made necessary by the Church’s growing alliance with the rural poor. By 1972, the Church was building a social action infrastructure in the impoverished countryside. This infrastructure became a foundation for Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), small bible study groups which sometimes turned into crucibles of local resistance to the regime. These, too, were targets of state violence, which drew condemnation from the bishops.
Then in August 1983, the urban elite and middle classes poured into the streets to protest the murder of Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Mostly Catholic-educated and lacking political experience, they instinctively turned to the bishops for the leadership which opposition parties had failed to provide, and which they feared to accept from the NDF. The bishops and these “middle forces” found a common interest in managing a nonviolent transition from dictatorship in the face of the CPP’s growing strength.
Yet it would be untrue to say that the CBCP turned against the regime mainly for institutional self-preservation. The dictatorship period was made prophetic by the bishops’ proclamation of Gospel values consistent with those of democracy—freedom, equality, participation, human dignity—at great risk to the institution. Those who took the greatest risks were progressive bishops, many of whom presided over poor peripheral sees in which these values were most blatantly violated.
More pragmatic moderates and conservatives soon realized that accommodation did not protect the Church. As they learned to tolerate the risks of denunciation, calculations of institutional self-preservation increasingly took a back seat to the proclamation of Catholic and democratic principles.
This subordination of institutional interests to ethics was dramatically manifested by two actions in 1986: the CBCP’s Post-Election Statement, drafted mainly by a risk-taking progressive bishop, Francisco F. Claver, SJ; and Jaime Cardinal Sin’s call to the faithful to bring food for soldiers involved in an abortive military rebellion against the regime. In neither case was there any objective reason to expect success.
The CBCP statement declared the regime illegitimate—an unprecedented and courageous move. But its call for civil disobedience without specifics—deliberately, since the bishops wanted the people themselves to decide what to do—was more certain to galvanize the regime’s wrath than a populace unaccustomed to organized recalcitrance.
Cardinal Sin could not have known how generously, and in what phenomenal numbers, Metro Manilans would respond to his call to rally to the mutinous troops. Had no one come for the street party at Edsa, the Cardinal would have exposed himself to charges of subversion, to no effect. Had the Marcos military mowed down the unarmed supplicants before them, then not just the faithful in the streets, but also faith in the Church, would have been decimated.
That those two bets paid off for the Church—and the nation—owes nothing to strategic calculation.
Eleanor R. Dionisio is a research associate of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.