What Difference Can A Manila Archbishop Make?

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by Eleanor R. Dionisio

(A re-post. Please click this link.)


Giddiness is not a mood one associates with the clergy. But my sacerdotal spies tell me the mood in some religious communities was positively giddy when Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Roman Catholic archbishop of Manila, declared that the Vatican had named as his successor Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Imus.

Enthusiasm spilled well over the rim of the metropolitan province of Manila. One Catholic university president in Mindanao, hurrying down the stairs to break the news, broke a leg instead. When we saw him three days later, he was still crowing from his hospital bed.

Archbishop Tagle is articulate, personable, younger and comelier than most Catholic bishops in the Philippines. He is a rock star not just among the clergy and religious, but also among a large demographic of youth and of married middle-aged manang types who develop chaste infatuations for handsome clerics.

But he is also a solid theologian and social justice advocate. Some hope he will strengthen the Church’s voice on issues of economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, human rights violations and corruption.

Yet beyond the 549 square kilometers of his see, what difference can an archbishop of Manila make?

The archbishop of Manila does not head the Philippine Catholic Church. He heads one see, outside of which his episcopal pronouncements carry no official weight. While he also heads the metropolitan province of Manila, encompassing Antipolo, Cubao, Imus, Caloocan, Novaliches, Parañaque, Pasig and San Pablo, his authority over the bishops of those sees is mainly admonitory. He does not govern or discipline them. He presides over the provincial council, but has only one vote in that council, as in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Yet traditionally the Philippine Church has looked to the archbishop of Manila as a leader, if only because the metropolitan province of Manila is still the nation’s political and economic center.

Each Filipino archbishop of Manila has left a stamp on the Philippine Church. When Gabriel Reyes became the first in 1949, the new republic was rent by the Huk rebellion. To address the poverty and injustice fueling the rebellion, he encouraged the promotion of Catholic social teaching.

The Church, still extricating itself from complicity in the tenancy system, was not yet prepared to call loudly for agrarian reform. But Reyes supported the Church’s first engagement in labor organizing, with the Federation of Free Workers (FFW). Paradoxically, he died grieving over an FFW-led labor dispute in an enterprise that was majority-owned by his archdiocese.

Rufino Santos had less tolerance than Reyes for the FFW’s unionization of Church enterprises. But as the Huk rebellion died out, he helped fund the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), the first peasant organization inspired by Catholic social teaching. By the late 1960s, the FFF was immersing Catholic religious and clergy in rural issues, pushing the Church into a stronger stance for agrarian reform. The FFF waxed militant, besieging the Department of Agriculture backed by Catholic school students, religious and clergy.

Such militance worried Santos. When martial law was declared in 1972, he defended it even as some FFF leaders and sympathetic clergy and religious were arrested or hunted down. He died before the full force of persecution of Church activists could be felt, leaving his successor, Jaime Sin, to calibrate the Church’s increasingly hostile relationship with the authoritarian state.

Five months after Sin’s appointment, in August 1974, a military raid on a novitiate in his diocese compelled him publicly to rebuke that state. Later that year, he reproved its abuses of political detainees and alleged cases of summary execution. In 1976 he censured its anti-labor policies. In 1978 he decried electoral fraud in his see. Thereafter he denounced poll abuses whenever they occurred, thus legitimizing Catholic participation in the defense of electoral integrity. His role in ousting Marcos—from uniting the opposition around one presidential candidate in 1985 to the final confrontation in 1986—shows what a difference an archbishop of Manila can make.

Such high-profile intervention became less appropriate after the dictatorship, as democratic institutions consolidated and civil society thrived. Rosales’ low-key politics was in part reaction to Sin’s intense visibility, in part personal disposition, in part needed to wean the polity from expectations that the bishops would mediate every political crisis. But he did not shrink from opposing élites in his consistent support for agrarian reform.

Tagle is expected to continue this legacy of concern for social justice and democracy. But he must also resist calls to the bishops—lately from the Speaker and the Senate president—to fix the problems of a democracy which cannot grow if the Church plays its nanny.

One contribution he might make is to cultivate among his own flock a healthy respect for secular democratic institutions, alongside a robust orientation for social justice. A project he had in the works at Imus was a formation program in Catholic social teaching for the clergy, religious and laity. Such a project in his new see could help devolve leadership in social and political advocacy onto the Church’s base, and set an example for other sees.

Then not the archbishop of Manila, but the Church as people of God, might make a difference.

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