Justice’s two voices

/ 09:11 PM September 05, 2013

Most people I talked with appreciated Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s impassioned critique of the pork barrel scam and his low-key presence at the Aug. 26 Luneta rally. His actions raise once again the question of how the Catholic Church should address the problems facing people in society today, especially the problems of social justice. To whom should it speak? What response should it ask? To whom should we all speak and with whom should we work?

Traditionally the Church has responded to injustice in two ways. In the first, the road more traveled, the Church describes the problem it wishes to solve, and then calls on the heads of state, the rich and the powerful, to solve the problem. The approach presumes that change in society comes from the top and that the powerful can solve the problems. The second approach has been taken by Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and many other Church leaders. They realize basic change in society regularly involves a confrontation between the powerful and the powerless. And they choose to speak in the name of the victims, and have the sufferings of the poor and the powerless front and center in their minds. They end by calling on all men and women of good will to oppose the unjust ways of the powerful.


The first approach may have worked in the Middle Ages, when the popes had real power over kings and emperors, and they in turn had near total power over their subjects. But the approach hardly works now: the people of the world have become democrats in their hearts, even if their governments are still authoritarian.

The first approach reechoes the more conservative priestly tradition of the Old Testament; the Cardinal Sin-Archbishop Romero approach continues the prophetic tradition. The second is effective when the Church not only speaks out for the good of the ordinary people but also involves the people in solving the problem. The Church gives a voice to those who are voiceless and calls on the people to take part in the solution. The prophetic voice arises from the suffering heart of the poor, and engages the poor in working out a solution.


This discussion so far is somewhat theoretical. Luckily we have an example of how the two approaches might work out in practice. This example is found in Pope Paul VI’s visit to Tondo in November 1970.

The pope arrived at the Don Bosco school in Barrio Magsaysay on a Sunday afternoon, and almost immediately gave a rather routine greeting and a talk on moral guidance to the mostly urban crowds gathered on the soccer field there. He spoke in Latin, which was translated by a young Salesian priest. The speech, written by the Vatican Curia, was, in general outline, the speech he delivered in the urban poor areas he visited around the world. It was polite. It didn’t speak of the land problem that raged in Tondo. Toward the end of the speech the pope asked the president to help the poor people, little realizing the president was the cause of the land problem.

Chances are the pope didn’t know of the problem. It was created by President Ferdinand Marcos’ desire to evict 180,000 poor people from Tondo to turn the area into an upscale housing and business center. The poor opposed the plan at a very visceral level. The poor people of the Zone One Tondo Organization were there in big numbers in the hope of hearing the pope support their rights to land tenure security.

Then the pope walked through the muddy streets of Tondo—there had just been a major typhoon—to the run-down shack of a poor family. He stayed there longer than expected and, when he returned to Don Bosco, he seemed stunned by the poverty he had seen. He didn’t speak to the officials and priests around him, but held tightly to the hand of a Franciscan Missionary of Mary sister who was just a few feet from me. He looked sad as if someone had died. He looked around and seemed to see the poor people in the soccer field for the first time.

I thought, maybe the poor family he visited had explained the land problem to him. I thought, he may have regretted the inadequacy of his earlier words. Maybe, I thought, he will call for the microphone and speak from his heart about the poverty he had seen and demand that the president settle the problem in a fair and just manner. I thought we might see a pope speak for justice from his heart, with compassion and righteous anger and with all the power of his office.

As everyone knows the pope didn’t. If he had, the history of our Church would be different. Maybe our secular history would also be very different.

Pope Paul’s talk was a good example of the first way the Church has used to approach problems of injustice. His extempore speech would have been an example of the second manner of approach.


* * *

When actor Martin Sheen was here in 1997 to help promote better housing for the poor, he was interviewed by Dong Puno on TV. Puno began by asking Sheen why he was in Manila. Sheen said, “Because I am a Catholic.” He explained that he had been raised to believe that as a Catholic his job in the world was to help the poor and lessen injustice. When he was asked to come to Manila to help, he said he couldn’t refuse.

We may believe we are not qualified to speak about injustice, but then we should read again the early chapters of the Book of Exodus.

Moses said to God when asked to go to the Pharaoh and speak for the Hebrews: “If you please, Lord, I have never been eloquent…. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

God answered: “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb… It is I who will assist you in speaking and will teach you all to say.” (Exodus 4:10-12)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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