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Cardinal Sin

"None of his successors ever dared step into this man’s shoes."

Fifteen years ago, with the death of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin on June 21, the Catholic Church in the Philippines lost its strongest and perhaps most authoritative voice in Philippine politics. Neither side of the political fence can discount Cardinal Sin’s role during the 1986 EDSA Revolution that catapulted former President Corazon Aquino to power and the removal of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada from Malacañang in 2001. To his friends and proteges, Cardinal Sin was a revered pastor and courageous prophet for democracy, but to his many critics even within the Church, he was a wayward priest who dragged the Church to politics.

While Cardinal Sin is often remembered for his political influence, it is seldom mentioned that some of his political views were left unheeded by the faithful. During the 1992 presidential elections, for example, he indicated preference for Ramon Mitra; still, a Protestant, Fidel Ramos, won the presidency. During the 1998 elections, he adamantly called on the faithful to vote for any candidate except Joseph Estrada. Again, he failed to convince the Filipino voters, an overwhelming majority of which were Catholics. But even these two instances did not lessen his resolve to speak for truth and justice, as he did time and again, to reject calls to amend the 1987 Constitution and to reject the passage of a Reproductive Health Bill.

The gravest betrayal to his legacy would come years later with the presidency of Benigno Aquino III who pushed Congress to pass the Reproductive Health Act in 2012. Ironically, if not for the Cardinal’s support, the divided anti-Marcos opposition may never had the chance to win the elections, and Cory Aquino would never become president. With their political fortunes tied to the Church’s support, the second Aquino administration may never had happened.

But again, President Noynoy Aquino chose to repay the Church’s support by defying her position on artificial contraception. One wonders what Cardinal Sin would have said about the second President Aquino if he were still alive by then.

Without an authoritative voice like Cardinal Sin, critics are quick to assess that the Church’s influence over Filipino society have begun to wane. The passage of the Reproductive Health Act is believed to have signified a political setback for the Church, significantly diminishing its once-unquestioned moral authority. 

Whether one agrees or not with his politics, Jaime Cardinal Sin will be remembered for bringing the Catholic Church in the Philippines to its own “aggiornamento,” echoing the renewal of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. Filipino society as a whole, will forever be grateful for his openness, candor and courage. Before Cardinal Sin became the Archbishop of Manila, the Catholic Church in the Philippines was often perceived to be removed from issues of the day and acquiescent to the political establishment. Majority of the bishops were reluctant to express their political and social views publicly. Most priests and religious were then confined to their rectories and convents. It was a Church that clearly took to heart the admonition “to be in the world, but not to be of the world.” 

It was Cardinal Sin that transformed the image of the Church. Ending years of “critical collaboration” with the Marcos regime, the Church found its voice to speak against the excesses of Marcos’ “New Society”. With the Church becoming a part of an emerging civil society, more priests and religious were encouraged to more openly join political protests, not only to express its moral positions in the public sphere, but to actively participate in building a just and humane society.

As a pastor, Cardinal Sin knew how to combine his conservative theological views with a genuine concern for the poor. His sense of humor and amiable demeanor allowed him to work alongside politicians, businessmen and others of diverse backgrounds. He was appreciated at home for being known and respected abroad. In fact, he was the first Catholic cardinal to be able to visit Communist China since the Cultural Revolution, and the first to visit the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution.

None of his successors ever dared step into the shoes of Cardinal Sin. Not even the entire Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) would match his charisma and decisiveness in speaking against the political issues of the day. There is no doubt that Cardinal Sin strongly wielded the Church’s influence in the country’s social and political affairs, and in shaping the nation’s political and economic policies, especially when these ran counter to the Church’s teachings and discipline.

If Cardinal Sin is to be credited for one thing, it is that he was able to effectively deter the growing surge of secularism by affirming the Church’s continued relevance in Filipino society. No longer was the Church a voice from the pulpit that was detached from reality, it was a voice that was now being heard in the parliament of the streets and in the hallways of power. In 1991, when the bishops of the Philippines gathered for the Second Plenary Council, the Church courageously called itself, the “Church of the Poor” - a “Church [that] will courageously defend and vindicate the rights of the poor and the oppressed even when doing so will mean alienation or persecution from the rich and powerful.”

But, many in the Church believed Cardinal Sin went too far, leaving the Church hierarchy with valuable lessons. After Cardinal Sin, the Catholic Church tried to be more precise about its role in politics: while bishops and priests have the moral duty to teach, partisan politics were within the purview of the laity. At the height of the call for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to resign in 2005 over allegations of manipulating the 2004 elections, the CBCP respectfully declined to support the moves for her ouster. The Church also appeared divided in the 2016 elections. While a few bishops openly campaigned against President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, majority of them left the choice open to their faithful.

It would be interesting to imagine how Cardinal Sin would be as an archbishop today with Rodrigo Duterte as president. The clash in institutional interests between the Church and the government has never been as pronounced as they are now. While in many ways, President Duterte has simply carried on with his predecessor’s confrontation with the Catholic Church on the issue of reproductive health, he has brought his already uneasy relations with the Shurch to an entirely new level by challenging the moral right of the hierarchy to question his administration’s policies. 

Looking back, Cardinal Sin was able to effectively transform politics into an area of evangelization. By bringing the Church closer to the political realm, like “parallel tracks on a railroad” separate but with a common destination, his ardent hope was to nurture Gospel values such as justice, compassion and integrity within the political field. However history will judge his legacy, many Filipinos of our generation will always remember Jaime Cardinal Sin, priest and prophet, as one of the most inspiring spiritual leaders of the Filipino nation. 

“My duty is to put Christ in politics. Politics without Christ is the greatest scourge of our nation.” – Jaime Cardinal Sin (2003)

Topics: Jaime Cardinal Sin , 1996 EDSA Revolution , Corazon Aquino
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