Guerilla Information Network
A Wall of Separation?

by John J. Carroll, SJ
Posted on the Guerilla Information Network
28 July 2001



AT EDSA during the crucial days of February 1986, I had with me a transistor radio, tuned most of the time to Radio Veritas where we heard the voice of June Keithley giving informa�tion and instructions to the crowds, encouraging them, calling for reinforcements in this or that critical area. Once, however, I switched to a Protestant station, and what did I hear? Music! Nothing but music as far as I was able to tell. To me at that moment, the playing of music was a symbol of irrelevance; the Protestant station had nothing to say to a nation in crisis.

My reaction may have been unfair. Nevertheless, the experience underlined for me the conviction that when the future of a society is at stake, a church which claims the loyalty of the majority of its people and which has a strong social doc�trine, cannot not be involved, under pain of irrelevance.

Despite recent attempts to rewrite history, the pre�dominant role played in People Power I by the Catholic Church, and by Jaime Cardinal Sin, in particular, is indisputable and will not be argued here. The bishops, moreover, continued to play a signifi�cant role on the national stage following People Power I, in support of President Corazon C. Aquino in the face of recurrent coup attempts and through their pastoral letters which brought to the attention of the public issues including agrarian reform, corruption, recon�ciliation with rebel groups, human rights, free and honest elec�tions, the environment, and proposals to change the Constitution.

In 1997, Cardinal Sin was a major force behind the mas�sive anti-cha-cha rally in Manila which, together with other rallies around the country, finally discouraged President Fidel V. Ramos from seeking a constitutional change and reelection. Of these rallies, the political commentator Amando Doronila wrote:

The rallies...prove that outside of the State, the Church is the only social force capable of mobilizing public opinion and protest against any regime. In many mature democracies, political mobilization is carried out by the political par�ties. In our democracy, the Church�s national infrastructure serves as the vehicle for mass mobilization. This reflects the weakness of the party system. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 September 1997, p. 9.)

People Power II

The run-up to People Power II had many parallels with that to People Power I, but also significant differences. Parallels include the role of Cardinal Sin in focusing public attention on the failings of the two presidents, and the Church-sponsored rallies. Among the significant differences was the far greater participation of organized civil society groups including, particularly, groups on the left of the political spectrum.

In fact, although the origi�nal initiative for the impeachment process came from groups which were linked informally to the Church, and the influence of Car�dinal Sin and former President Aquino were crucial in getting the popular movement under way, by the time that the impeachment proceedings actually began in December, the Church and church-related groups were no longer the dominant players. Other secular and leftist groups were providing numbers, muscle and money for the movement.

The fact that the Church was no longer in sole charge became public on January 20 when thousands marched from the EDSA Shrine to Mendiola despite the expressed wishes of Cardinal Sin � anxious to avoid violence � that they not do so.

A wall of separation?

If the closing hours of People Power II were marked by division within the ranks of the anti-Estrada forces, this could be de�fended as a healthy sign of growing maturity on the part of civil society. Nevertheless, a far more ominous division soon appeared as it became evident that the removal from office of Estrada, left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Many of the poor, and particularly perhaps the unorganized urban poor � who identified with Estrada, who felt he was somehow one with them, who found in him a kindly older broth�er � sensed that they were being put down as he was charged, arrested, fingerprinted and imprisoned.

Thus, one of my young friends from Payatas spoke for many of her neighbors when she expressed her sympathy for Erap, remarked that he had visited them after the disastrous trashslide of last year, and that he was no worse than �Chavit� Singson who was being treated as a hero. Again and again, one heard, also from Mindanao, the note that �he visited us, he ate with his hands as we do.� Clearly, many of those who felt excluded by society identified with him, perhaps even in his gambling, womanizing and drinking, or saw him as a symbol of what they would like to be.

The poor could hardly identify in that way with Cardinal Sin, and much of the resentment at Erap�s ouster was di�rected at the latter. Jesuit novices who were sent to live with urban poor families at that time reported that when their hosts were watching television and Cardinal Sin came on, some would begin to curse. And a woman living near a chapel at Payatas shouts regularly at churchgoers, �Cardinal Sin, mortal sin!�

The popular resentment reached the boiling point in late April, provoking the occupation of the EDSA Shrine area and the vandalism which occurred there, followed by the march to Malaca�ang and the siege of the latter. And these events, particularly the vandalism at the EDSA Shrine, caused some soul-searching among church people as well as in the wider society.

Thus, even before May Day, some church-related groups had revised their �voters� education� program to focus on listening to the sentiments and aspirations of the poor � a process which turned out to be very educational, not least for the �educators.� This education was reinforced by the overwhelming preference of Metro Manila�s �E� or poorest class for the Estrada candidates in the May 14 senatorial election.

Following the May Day event, Cardinal Sin asked the pardon of the poor for past neglect, although it was not clear in what this neglect consisted. In fact, the Cardinal and his Caritas Manila and the various institutions of the Church have, in very significant ways, been at the service of the poor. One thinks, for example, of the Vincentian Fathers and their lay volunteers who have chosen to live amid the stench of the Payatas dump, who have built a whole range of social services there and who fed and cared for victims of the trashslide for months after the tragedy.

Perhaps it is in part a matter of perception. There is in our society a vast underclass, of the unorganized poor par�ticularly, who feel excluded by the wider society of which the Church is a part, and who resent this exclusion. There is a cultural and emotional gap here, created not only by the lack of economic opportunity but also, as the World Bank�s World Development Report 2000/2001 pointed out, by insecurity and powerlessness.

The gap is emphasized by the perceived lifestyles of many churchpeople, as Cardinal Sin has pointed out: magnificent, squeaky-clean churches, beautiful campuses, the best computers and electronic gadgets, trips abroad by business class, medical treatment in the United States, residences in exclusive subdivi�sions with squatter communities just over the wall, symbolically a �wall of separation.� These speak of a world which has exclud�ed the poor, whereas somehow Erap Estrada who notoriously enjoyed the comforts of that world, seemed to invite them in.

A new form of relevance

The events of May Day have brought the Philippine Church face to face with one of the dilemmas of relevance. If you wish to be relevant, you must be ready to take a stand, and also to make enemies. This, the Church, as represented by Cardinal Sin, has chosen to do. But the �enemies� have proven to be a large seg�ment of the poor and excluded in our society; this could signal for us a repetition of the great scandal of the European Church in the Nineteenth Century, namely the loss of the working class.

Which does not mean that the Church should refuse to take a stand when key values are at stake. But perhaps it should move to doing so more as a �moral center� than as an active political force with the bishops calling the shots. Here I recall the effort of the Philippine Bishops to do just that, in their �Post-Election Statement� following the snap election of 1986.

The bishops stated their considered opinion, based on their own observations, that the election had failed and did not represent faithfully the will of the people. If that is so, they went on, then the election gives no moral mandate to the Marcos government to remain in power; if the latter insists on doing so, the people have the right and duty, non-violently, to force it to undo the wrong it has done.

The bishops then asked the people to consult their own experience, and if this agreed with that of the bishops, �let us pray together, reason together, decide together, act together, always to the end that the truth prevail, that the will of the people be fully respected.� Here it is clear that the bishops were addressing the Christian community from within, exercising moral rather than political leadership.

As it turned out, in 1986, the aborted military coup left no time for such praying, reasoning and deciding, and Car�dinal Sin was obliged on his own to call the people to the streets. But perhaps we can look forward to, and work toward, a situation in which the Church provides the moral leadership rather than the political leadership and the shock troops.

In the meantime, we can suggest three approaches. First, that the Church continue and intensify its efforts for policy changes in the areas of agrarian reform, other forms of asset reform, tax reform, and better funded social services to bridge the economic and cultural gaps of which we spoke above. Secondly, that Church institutions become centers of dialogue and listening, where the various sectors of society can come together to listen to each other, to share their concerns, and to plan together, and the Church can become more truly an animator of civil society. And thirdly, that before every major decision � whether on the building of a church or school, the purchase of a car or cellphone, or a dinner out � churchpeople ask themselves how this tune will play among the excluded.

From the July 2001 issue of Intersect magazine.

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