Recently the Philippines passed an anti-terrorism bill that many human rights groups and civic groups see is potentially silencing dissent in the Philippines. This has followed the disenfranchisement of popular news media and Duterte critic ABS-CBN and the recent conviction on trumped up charges of journalist Maria Ressa. Human rights activists are being red-tagged by the military and several of these activists have been harassed and some have been killed.
Journalists, lawyers, leftists, artists, human rights activists, indigenous rights groups and various Christian groups have protested the attempts to silence dissenting voices and have filed petitions to the Philippine Supreme Court to invalidate the anti-terror law. Potentially the most influential group to voice their opposition to the anti-terror law and to defend activists who have been red-tagged is the Philippine Catholic Church. This reflects the Roman Catholic Church’s recent history of opposing authoritarian governments. The Roman Catholic Church has evolved from being a strong opponent of democratic movements in the 19th century to being one of the strongest defenders of democracy in the world today.
During the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church was often in collusion with the oppressive monarchies in Europe. The Catholic hierarchy watched how the French Revolution unfolded in the 1790s, when French radicals destroyed church property and stripped the Catholic Church of political power, and this influenced the Church to view democratic movements with deep suspicion. While the priests and nuns on the ground level would be sympathetic to the poor and the marginalized, the hierarchy would be focused on maintaining its standing with the prevailing European monarchies and colonial governments in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The Catholic Church was deeply opposed to the democratic revolutions that took place in Europe in 1848.
This began to slowly change with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Though not specifically an endorsement of democracy, the encyclical did support the rights of workers to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, and supported the right of a person to own private property. Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in response to the growing problems of poverty and exploitation of workers during the Industrial Revolution, focusing on the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Rerum Novarum’s overriding concern was in alleviating the suffering of the working classes due to unregulated capitalism.
Influenced by Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno, Catholic priests and nuns became more involved in the causes of workers and the political rights of poor communities. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker Movement applied Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno in the 1930s to advocate for labor unions, denounce Jim Crow laws in the South and criticize Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies.
During the early twentieth century, the Catholic Church would oppose the totalitarian communist governments of Lenin and Stalin, but turn a blind eye to right wing totalitarian governments like Mussolini’s Fascist Italian government. Adolf Hitler’s ascension into power in Germany forced the Roman Catholic Church to ask how the Church should confront totalitarian right wing governments. The Church looked to two very contrasting examples: Pope Pius the Eleventh (the pope of most of the 1930s) and Pope Pius the Twelfth (the pope of the 1940s). Both popes were opposed to Hitler. The question that many ask is: should the pope have spoken out and confront Hitler or should the pope work behind the scenes on diplomatic solutions and not speak out on things like the Holocaust?
In the beginning Pope Pius the Eleventh signed some concordants with Hitler in the hopes that the Catholic Church would be able to function without hindrance in Germany. But as Hitler began to break the concordants and as the Nazis began to ramp up its anti-Jewish harassment, Pope Pius the Eleventh became increasingly confrontational. He had 300,000 copies of the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge smuggled into Germany to be read on on Easter Sunday 1937 that condemned the Nazi’s ideas of racial superiority and the idolizing of the state. In a public address in the Vatican to Belgian pilgrims in 1938, Pius the Eleventh said that anti-semitism is incompatible with Christianity and that all Christians are Semites. On November 11 1938, following Kristallnacht, Piusthe Eleventh joined Western leaders in condemning Kristallnacht, a pogrom against Jews carried throughout Nazi Germany. When Italy introduced anti-Semitic legislation in 1938. Pius the Eleventh publicly asked Italy to abstain from adopting racist legislation. In 1938, Pius the Eleventh secretly commissioned American Jesuit journalist John LaFarge to write the encyclical Humani generis unitas that would condemn racism in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, and to explicitly condemn Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies. Pius the Eleventh died before he could deliver the encyclical.
While Pius the Eleventh was willing to publicly confront Hitler, his successor, Pius the Twelfth was unwilling to attack Hitler except in the vaguest terms. In secret, Pius the Twelfth allowed monasteries to shelter Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution. The question with Pius the Twelfth is whether he should have spoken out publicly against the Nazis, especially when he found out about the enormity of the Holocaust. If Pius the Eleventh was willing to publicly speak out against the Nazis, why couldn’t Pius the Twelfth? This question would deeply influence later popes, especially Pope John Paul II, who did not hesitate to speak out against totalitarian governments.
During the Vatican II council in the 1960s, the Catholic bishops issued their Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, which focused on the Catholic Church’s responsibility to aid the poor and the downtrodden. In 1968 the Catholic Bishops of Latin America (CELAM) applied the principles of Gaudium et spes to a Latin American context in a conference held in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia. In too many Latin American countries, the Catholic hierarchy sided with the right wing regimes and the wealthy class instead of the poor, and the bishops in the Medellin conference sought to shift the Church’s support for the poor instead. The bishops agreed that the church should take “a preferential option for the poor” and gave their approval to Christian “base communities” in which the poor might learn to read by reading the Bible. The goal of the bishops was to empower people to fight against poverty.
This new spirit motivated many Catholic priests, nuns and lay people to oppose the right wing and left wing authoritarian governments in Latin America and the Philippines at great risk to their lives. Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Cardinal Jaime Sin in the Philippines spoke out against the right wing dictatorships in their countries.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, and Jesuits Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino, expanded on the concept of “preferential option for the poor” to formulate Liberation theology that focused on the political liberation for oppressed peoples.
Pope John Paul II had experienced both the occupation of Poland by the Nazis and years of oppression by the Soviet Union, so he developed a deep hatred of both left wing and right wing totalitarian governments. As head of the Polish Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II organized the Polish Catholic Church as an effective opposition to the totalitarian communist Polish government. And though John Paul II clashed often with the Liberation Theologists, the pope shared with the Liberation Theologists a deep opposition to the right wing death squads and authoritarian governments in Latin America.
Right now, the Philippines Catholic Church is playing an important role in speaking out against democratic backsliding in the Philippines. The bishops, priests, and nuns have spoken out against Duterte’s extrajudicial killings, Duterte’s attempts to intimidate journalists and critical news media and has been a persistent critic of the red-tagging of human rights and indigenous rights activists. The Catholic Church cannot do it alone though. The Church will need alliances with journalists, lawyers, leftists, artists, human rights activists,civic groups and other Christian and Muslim groups to be an effective opposition to the growing authoritarian tendencies of the Duterte government. When these groups coalesce and persuade the Philippine middle class to join in opposition, this will be the best defense of democracy in the Philippines.