Home / Opinion / Why the Church did not oppose outright Marcos and Martial Law, 1972-1977

Why the Church did not oppose outright Marcos and Martial Law, 1972-1977

May 21, 2019


JUST before dawn on Sept. 21, 1973, one year after President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, an 18-year-old seminarian named Amado Picardal was arrested on the streets of Cebu City.

He had on him a stack of hand-printed leaflets that denounced Martial Law and called on people to resist Marcos’ new dictatorial regime. Police caught him putting the leaflets through letterboxes.

Labeled as a “subversive” but not formally charged, he was thrown into jail where he endured beatings, solitary confinement, interrogations and severe torture, which included electric shocks. On his release, seven months later, his military captors made him sign a paper that denied the abuse he suffered. “I survived…I was free at last,” Picardal later wrote. “But I was released to a bigger prison — Philippine society under a dictatorial rule.”

The declaration of Martial Law in 1972 effectively destroyed institutional opposition. Presiding over a majority Catholic population, the Church was then poised to be the most important organization still able to challenge the Marcos regime and influence public opinion at a grassroots level. However, as the political scientist Robert L. Youngblood observed, the Catholic Church was far from united in its opposition toward Martial Law. In 1978 he wrote: “In the absence of formal channels of dissent, Church liberals and social activists will continue to speak out against martial law on principle as well as against specific excesses of the government and military. Yet except on specific issues that somehow touch on Church nerves, it is unlikely that the Catholic hierarchy will unite against the regime.”

The two key organizations within the Church that are able to take a powerful and meaningful stand on social issues are the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). In the early years of Martial Law, the AMRSP represented 2,500 priests and 7,000 nuns. The membership was young, more inclined to social action, and politically outspoken. Picardal, who later took his vows into the priesthood, was one of a growing number of Church activists and religious dissidents — priests, nuns, and foreign missionaries, who were more vocal in criticizing government policies and martial law abuses. Largely involved in social action programs among communities, and to a degree influenced by leftist Latin American liberation theology, these men and women worked on the frontline, supporting the struggles and rights of the poor, urban squatters, workers, peasants and political prisoners. It was they who suffered the most in government crackdowns that included disappearances, arbitrary jailings, torture and deportations.

The CBCP constituted 76 bishops. Within them, according to Youngblood, there could be ascertained three distinct ideological divisions. The conservative group, of around 15 bishops, led by Cardinal Rosales, was the most supportive of the regime’s touted ‘New Society.’ If they opposed Marcos’ family planning program and the legalization of divorce, they broadly agreed with the President about the threat of communist subversion and rebellion, and his Martial Law policies and reforms to do with law, order, curbing corruption and inefficiency in government.

Conservatives controlled the CBCP and its executive board, hence, crucially, had the power to dictate Church policy. In general, that policy favored the government, opposed the radicalization of younger clergy, especially those that appeared to be communist-leaning, and adopted a “wait and see” attitude.

Moderates composed the second group. While they could and did attack specific injustices, particularly the suppression of civil liberties and human rights violations, these bishops studiously refrained from criticizing Martial Law. Like their conservative counterparts, they were cautious fence sitters, preferring to pledge prayer rather than social action and boycotts. They were led by then Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila who called this position “critical collaboration.”

The third group constituted the liberal and radicalized elements of the CBCP. Led by Bishop Claver, these men were quick to voice their concern over the loss of fundamental rights and increasing repression. Claver and other liberal clerics were swift to act against arrests, military raids on Church institutions and the padlocking of church doors, and the closure of Church-run radio stations and other media critical of the government. By the mid-1970s, liberals were gaining support from their moderate colleagues angered by the series of brutal crackdowns. In 1976, Marcos issued a deadly list in which 155 clerics, including four bishops, were named and ordered arrested. Even those pro-government conservative clergy were moved to sign a strongly worded pastoral letter condemning government actions.

From 1972 to 1977, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 political prisoners were illegally detained. By late 1977, over 246 clergy had been accused of subversion and arrested. If continuing human rights violations went some way toward unifying the Church hierarchy, ideological cleavages could also bitterly divide conservative, moderate and liberal clergy. During these early years of Martial Law,

Marcos and his government were adept at exploiting, exacerbating and reinforcing these divisions, pulling back when necessary to avoid confrontational showdowns with the Catholic Church. It would take about a decade and over a thousand murdered victims of Martial Law, before the Church hierarchy would act as one.

At this point in time, it would not be easy to assess the extent of Church opposition to the Duterte government. One could start with a few bare, hard facts: the President has made the Church a target of extreme verbal abuse. He has publicly vilified certain individual bishops. A handful of priests have received serious death threats. Three priests have been assassinated. And at least one, Fr. Amado Picardal, is in hiding.


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