The priest who today leads the labor protests may tomorrow be considered a nuisance by a new government.

Last June, an issue of the Manila Times Journal reported the shooting of a colonel in the Philippine army and a woman assistant, allegedly by a guerilla priest, as they were disembarking from a helicopter in a mountainous area. They had made the journey hoping to accept the surrender of another guerilla priest, one of four who had joined the Communist-influenced New People’s Army.

This incident is the most dramatic in a series of confrontations going on for years between the Marcos administration and Catholic and Protestant churchmen. These confrontations date from the period immediately before martial law was imposed, when some clergy encouraged student activists to stage protest demonstrations. Since then friction has mounted, and there is no indication that the proclamation of the end of martial law in January of last year will bring any lessening of state-church conflict.

The Philippines was a Spanish colony for 350 years, and was then controlled by the United States until becoming independent in 1946. Nearly 90 percent of the population are Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, although there is also a vigorous Protestant movement that dates back to the start of the American occupation in 1900. Muslims, animists, and a few Buddhists make up the non-Christian sector.

The independent Philippine government was modeled to some extent on the American pattern. It was democratic in character, and in spite of charges of corruption, elections were sufficiently uncontrolled that no administration was reelected until Ferdinand Marcos won another term in 1969. His second term was marked by increasingly violent demonstrations by student activists seeking radical changes in government policy. Using this unrest as a justification, Marcos in 1972 proclaimed martial law as a means of both stopping Communist subversion and of bringing about a “new society.” Though martial law was ended in January 1981, critics claim Marcos retains dictatorial power and that his reelection by 88 percent of the votes last spring was a sham.

The casual visitor to the Philippines probably would be unaware of the state-church conflict. Not only are services held as usual in the churches, but religious schools, hospitals, and social agencies carry on their activities with no visible sign of restriction. Churches are often crowded, and the visit of Pope John Paul II in February 1981 was an occasion of national celebration, with Marcos and his wife conspicuously participating.

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This surface calm is not altogether misleading. Guerilla priests and other militants are rare. Many of the clergy, both Protestant and Catholic, regard the Marcos regime as beneficial; others are indifferent. Still others may have reservations, but they have not become vigorous opponents. Most estimates are that not more than a third of the clergy would be classed as “progressives,” a label indicating a critical attitude toward the government. Cardinal Jaime Sin, the leading Roman Catholic prelate, has announced a policy of “critical collaboration.” Most clergy would not go further than this, but there is a dissident minority who feel the chasm between them and the government is very deep.

Part of this chasm is created by the routine interaction of church, people, and government. Especially since the early sixties, both Catholics and Protestants have been increasingly active in social welfare and action programs. They are, therefore, more in touch with people who have been disappointed in the government programs. When the farmer does not do as well as he had expected in the land reform program, has to pay more rent than he feels is proper, or must yield claim on land to a corporate plantation, the priest or pastor is one of the few people who will listen to his complaint. Likewise, the industrial worker, harassed by inflationary prices, may welcome aid from priests willing to support illegal strikes. Similarly, relatives of those who feel they have suffered arbitrary arrest or imprisonment may seek clerical intervention.

The progressive clergy have kept up a fire of criticism and have seized every opportunity to be advocates of any who feel aggrieved by government authorities. In turn, the government has suppressed publications, seized radio stations, raided seminaries, and occasionally arrested both clergy and active lay people. Such actions have usually been of brief duration, and those arrested are soon released. However, some of the foreign clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, have been deported, and a few Filipino priests have gone into exile.

Government actions are often irritating and sometimes harsh, but it seems evident that President Marcos has no desire for a church controversy. Indeed, there have been several attempts at conciliation. The failure of these attempts is due less to specific incidents, or to resentment at the strictures martial law placed on Philippine democracy, than to the ideological gulf that separates the activist clergy from the officials of the Marcos government. The activist or progressive clergy have been influenced by the theology of liberation and its concern for the poor and oppressed. The rhetoric of this concern is not greatly different from that of the proclamations of martial law government, which also talked about a revolution—albeit one considered democratic—and expressed a concern for improving the status and economic condition of the masses of the Philippine people.

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Both church and state would appear to be united in their concern for social amelioration, but they differ in their diagnosis of the nature of the problems that lead to poverty. The advocates of liberation theology see poverty as produced by exploitation. This exploitation comes from both local and international capitalists. The only way in which significant improvement can be made is to overthrow the economic system that permits this kind of exploitation, and the government that supports such a system.

The government, which also professes a concern for the poor, sees the major difficulty as one of underdevelopment. The answer to underdevelopment is seen not so much in “freedom from exploitation” as in modernization.

Liberation Theology Policies And Tactics

The Philippines has at least two similarities to the South American milieu in which liberation theology has seen its greatest development: economic development has lagged, and there is a significant proportion of foreign clergy. Some Filipino clergy have become advocates of liberation theology, but the greater activity has been exercised by non-Filipinos. The lag in economic development is accompanied by a poverty that is especially startling to those reared in affluent areas abroad. The foreign clergy are shocked by visible poverty, and desire to do something to justify their “service” motivation. Progress of any kind is uneven, and an idealized version of Marxism enables them to identify the “unjust structures” that must be destroyed.

Liberation theology, in its attack on multinational corporations and their local allies, strikes a responsive chord in some Filipino nationalists. Filipino intellectuals have long taught that their country’s culture was emasculated and its economy exploited by American control. But the intellectuals live in frustration because anti-Americanism is still a minority view. Many Filipinos remember the grant of independence, the wartime affiance, and the legends of the “good” Americans. Indeed, the American (or sometimes now Japanese) label is a guarantee of quality, and migration to the U.S. is the assurance of success. Needless to add, the frustration of the intellectuals only reinforces the intensity of their commitment.

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Liberation theology brings the frustrated Filipino intellectual and the expatriate clergy together. It combines the usual Marxian views with long-standing nationalist grievances. The wonder is not that some of the clergy have found it attractive, but that the majority are still skeptical.

Those committed to liberation theology usually deny that they are Communist, but they urge the need to learn from the Marxists and to cooperate with them in attacking unjust structures. Violence is not necessarily to be deplored, and above all else, the Christian should avoid trying to impose his judgment on the techniques employed to attain liberation.

Despite the talk of violence, very few of the progressive clergy are involved in violent activities. Instead, they use the Alinsky technique of exacerbating any grievance that comes to their attention. The grievances may or may not be important in themselves, but expressing them gives voice to discontent and counters the government’s claims to progress. Likewise, as they have the opportunity, the progressive clergy engage in conscientization or what is known in American circles as “consciousness raising.” This means informing the poor that they are oppressed, and identifying the structures the liberationists feel are oppressive.

Role Of The Technocrats

To read the speeches and writings of the progressive clergy is to get the impression that they are fighting against a reactionary and stagnant social order consisting of the hereditary holders of wealth. Looking at the government side, one sees a quite different picture. Here, the men who are in the forefront of shaping social policy are the technocrats. While they are not men of great wealth, they are highly educated and supposedly sophisticated in economic planning. They have done graduate work in elite universities in the Philippines and abroad in such fields as political science, economics, and business administration. They are probably as critical of current Philippine society as the advocates of liberation theology, but they see the trouble not so much as injustice as inefficiency and failure to make the best use of resources.

The technocrats, on the whole, are critical of socialism or excessive government regulation, and they regard private business as the most efficient way to organize economic activity. However, if left to his own devices, the capitalist will not necessarily move in the direction that will maximize the country’s productivity. Hence, he needs guidance—and this guidance is provided by the technocrats. Private capitalists will do the work using market mechanisms, but the market may be tilted by lower interest rates for some types of loans, outright subsidies, price supports, and so on.

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The technocrats are interested in a greater degree of equality and improved social conditions, but they view the increase in productivity as essential before greater progress can be made. When they think of wages or prices, it is not in terms of justice but of the effect on productivity. Thus, if wages and prices are too high to meet international competition, they should be lowered. On the other hand, if there is a need to attract labor to new fields or to increase purchasing power, then wages might be raised. In this context, questions of the justice of a particular situation become irrelevant. Likewise, the class war that is assumed to be a basic fact of life by the liberation theologians tends to disappear. Rather than classes being arranged against each other, the technocrats see themselves as the designers of a unified society. Such a society needs management, technical skill, and capital. It is the job of the technocrats to see that these factors work together.

It is impossible in the course of a short article to delineate all the differences in the economic view of the liberation theologians and the technocrats, but the accompanying chart points up some of the significant items.

Factors In The Struggle

The Marcos administration has placed its case for continuance in power on economic development. It has certainly greatly expanded the infrastructure of the country. New hotels and factories, better roads and harbors, and improvements in agriculture all give testimony to success in this endeavor. Such progress has been achieved despite wildly fluctuating commodity prices, depredations by the New People’s Army, Muslim unrest, OPEC oil prices, and massive natural disasters.

Yet, it is commonly alleged that there has been little improvement, perhaps even a decrease, in the level of living of the average man. In a largely agricultural country, statistics are murky and the truth is difficult to come by. But there is no doubt that improvement has been less than expectations. What will be the outcome, then? Will the followers of liberation theology be part of a successful battle to unseat the Marcos regime and its commitment to technocratic policies, or are they making futile gestures?

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In many ways, there may be some chance of success for the progressive churchmen. The Marcos regime has indeed aroused more expectations than it has fulfilled. Furthermore, the bureaucrats and technocrats are not necessarily infallible and the military are sometimes heavy-handed. Above all, President Marcos has been in power for over 15 years and the public is beginning to become a bit weary and bored. Still, Marcos is an astute and flexible politician, and he may remain in power for years. On the other hand, there is some evidence that the forces against him are building up, and it may be that disciples of liberation theology will live to see a triumph of the anti-Marcos forces.

It is possible, however, that they may win the battle against the Marcos regime and yet lose the war. The end of the Marcos administration does not necessarily mean the end of technocratic influence in the Philippine government. The government that follows Marcos will still face the problems he faced. It is likely to use many of the remedies he sought to use, and to employ the technocrats as the best group to implement such remedies. For instance, any government will see a shortage of capital, and in spite of nationalistic feelings, it is likely to turn to the multinational corporation as a means of obtaining that capital. Any government will see a need to increase the production of agricultural export products, and it is likely to see the large-scale plantation as a useful device in this process.

In an economy with few sources of energy, the attraction of nuclear energy is understandable. The efforts of the Marcos regime to build a substantial nuclear plant have come under heavy criticism. But the need for energy in the Philippines is obvious, and nuclear sources are an obvious way of meeting at least a portion of these needs. If capital is to be developed and the Philippines is to be an attractive place for either foreign or local business, it will be necessary to see that there is internal peace and that labor demands remain moderate. Hence, it is likely that the priest who today leads the labor unions in a protest against the Marcos administration may also be considered a nuisance by the government which is to follow.

To a great extent, the liberation theologians represent the religious version of the largely socialist thinking that has dominated universities and seminaries in recent years in the industrialized world as well as in the Philippines. The popularity of this thinking is beginning to wane as more and more academics are beginning to see socialism as the old slavery rather than the new freedom. The abandonment of Maoism in China, the discontent in the Soviet Union, and the troubles in Poland are certainly indications that the socialist dream has failed to lead people to any type of earthly paradise. The liberation theologians are intoxicated by the Marxian praxis and the hope of ultimate success and justice it promises. In the light of trends in the world today, though, Marxism is not so much a force whose time has come as a philosophy whose day is already past.

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Whatever the immediate outcome of the struggle against the Marcos regime in the Philippines, it is doubtful whether the liberation theologians will be able to displace the technocrats from economic influence.

Chester L. Hunt is professor of sociology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Among his published sociological works is Society and Culture in the Rural Philippines, which he edited (Alemars, 1978).

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