The Times - London
Cardinal Jaime Sin
Archbishop of Manila who inspired the popular revolts which ousted two presidents of the Philippines
June 22, 2005
CARDINAL Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila, was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines and an outspoken critic of the Government of President Ferdinand Marcos.
Long before the assassination of the opposition leader Benigno Aquino in August 1983, which marked a turning point in Filipino politics, Sin had drawn attention to the country’s growing poverty, corruption and gross violations of human rights.
After Aquino’s death Sin expressed the moral outrage of Filipinos and encouraged public challenge to the Marcos administration in the hope of securing political reform. But although he went so far as to urge businessmen to join non-violent protest in an attempt to end repression and authoritarian rule, Sin was not a political radical. Above all, he sought national reconciliation.
His self-styled stance of “critical collaboration” towards the Marcos Government indicated an undoubted ambivalence that attracted displeasure from some opponents of the regime. That ambivalence arose from a concern that encouragement to outright confrontation would unleash social revolutionary forces to which the Church, as well as the State, might fall victim.
Sin’s attitude was influenced by the role that Buddhist monks had played in undermining the Diem Government in South Vietnam and so assisting the seizure of power by the Communists. He was not an advocate of liberation theology. He was also a conservative in his attitude to abortion and divorce. His conservatism constrained him in his political role. Sin was barbed in his attacks on Marcos’s personal rule and his wife Imelda’s self-indulgence, but stopped short of open incitement to revolt. As he told a visiting journalist: “I must be a minister of reconciliation as well as prophet of denunciation”.
Sin was an engaging man of great personal warmth, with a keen, dry sense of humour. He believed in compromise as a way of protecting the faith in a country whose population of 88 million is about 85 per cent Roman Catholic.
Sin was born in 1928, in New Washington, Capiz Province, Panay Island in the central Philippines. His father had emigrated to the country from southern China. Sin was ordained in 1954 and spent the first three years of his ministry as a diocesan missionary in Capiz. In 1957 he became the first rector of St Pius X Seminary in Roxas City, Panay, where he spent ten years.
In March 1967 he was ordained titular Bishop of Obba and auxiliary Bishop of Jaro in Iloilo Province in the south of Panay. He became Archbishop of Jaro in October 1972. He was said to be surprised in January 1984 when he was translated from provincial obscurity to become Archbishop of Manila. In May 1976 he was elevated to cardinal.
His tenure of office in Manila began soon after the proclamation of martial law by President Marcos. Throughout its duration and after 1981 when it was replaced by an amended form of personal rule, Sin was President Marcos’s most saintly critic.
The cardinal played a pivotal role in the President’s downfall. In February 1986, after Marcos edged out Corazón Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino, in a rigged election, Cardinal Sin and his fellow bishops declared the regime illegitimate and invited Filipinos to rectify the injustice by “peaceful and non-violent means”.
That month two senior military officers broke with Marcos and prepared to take a stand against him. Certain they would be attacked by Marcos loyalists, they contacted Sin, promising to support Mrs Aquino as the country’s legitimately elected president. The cardinal broadcast an appeal on Radio Veritas to “all the children of God” to go to two camps in the capital to protect the rebels. During the next three days, thousands of unarmed Filipinos filled Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), forming a vast human shield between the Government and the camps. When the US withdrew its support from Marcos, the regime finally crumbled.
Cardinal Sin always insisted that he acted as a religious leader and not as a politician during the struggle against Marcos. Defending his right to speak out, he recalled “the wise man who said that that war was much too important a business to be left exclusively in the hands of generals. Might not the same be said of government, that government is much too important a business to be left in the hands of politicians and political scientists?” Sin continued to be a trenchant social critic in the post-Marcos era. In 1995 he accused senior officials of fixing the result of the national elections and said he was astonished that the public had not protested at the results.
“Such an attitude speaks of utter moral bankruptcy or of thoroughgoing cynicism,” he said, predicting that “in a decade or so, or even earlier, Filipinos may end up by reaping utterly corrupt governance and a disintegrating, deeply divided and oppressive society”. The warning was prophetic.
The cardinal was himself briefly drawn into a financial scandal in 1997 when the former bank of the Manila archdiocese was declared insolvent. But a Senate committee promptly cleared the cardinal of any wrongdoing. In the same year the cardinal called a provincial council of priests and laity to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the archdiocese. The council, the first since 1907, was a huge undertaking, and added to the strain on the cardinal’s health. For many years he had suffered from a kidney ailment that required regular dialysis, and in October 1998 he spent a month in hospital. The Church held a day of prayer for the ailing cardinal, and he gained enough strength to return to his residence, declaring: “I am back to the House of Sin!”
In July 1999 the cardinal issued a pastoral letter, bluntly criticising the actor-turned-President Joseph Estrada for brokering secret deals with the “cronies of the Marcos dictatorship” and reining in the free press. He warned the President that the public was losing faith in him and said his dealings with the Marcos allies placed him under “dark clouds of suspicion”.
In October 2000, after claims that Estrada had received millions of pounds from an illegal gambling network, Sin urged the President to relinquish office. But other Filipino clergy dismissed the appeal, accusing Sin of “premature judgment”.
A month later the House of Representatives impeached Estrada for bribery, corruption and violation of the constitution. The impeachment trial collapsed the following January after 11 of 21 senators voted not to unseal bank records and all the prosecutors resigned. The same evening the cardinal addressed a massive crowd at a Marian shrine on EDSA, where praying nuns had faced down tanks in 1986. “We know in our hearts that the President is guilty,” Cardinal Sin said, leading prayers for Estrada’s resignation. The President eventually gave in to the chanting Manila crowds, agreeing to make way for his vice-president. A few weeks later the cardinal declared the site of the two “people power” revolts holy ground: “The glory of God was shown through the millions who kept vigil in 1986 and again in 2001,” he said. “We stood on this ground for new leadership and God answered our plea.”
In May 2001 Sin reached out to the supporters of the ousted President. At a reconciliatory Mass, he exchanged apologies with Estrada loyalists. He asked for the forgiveness of the poor, saying the Church had “neglected them for a long time”.
He also spoke out on international affairs. In 1999 he denounced the presence of US troops in the Philippines criticising the US for acting as a world policeman. In 2003 he chided President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for backing the war against Iraq and asked her to remain “a faithful daughter of the Church” by withdrawing her support for the American-led offensive.
Throughout his life the ethnically Chinese cardinal took a deep interest in the Catholic Church in communist China. He visited the country in 1984 and 1987, when he received an honorary doctorate from Shanghai University. In the early 1990s he began to explore privately the possibility of a new conversation with the Chinese Government, and was invited to China. Vatican officials disapproved of the cardinal’s initiative, but he was able to report his experience of the Chinese Church directly to Pope John Paul II.
In 2003 the cardinal retired as Archbishop of Manila because of poor health. In his retirement speech he said: “Politics without Christ is the greatest scourge of our nation.”
Cardinal Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila, 1984-2003, was born on August 3, 1928. He died on June 21, 2005, aged 76