Catholicism in the Philippines

Since the colonial period, Catholicism has been the cornerstone of Filipino identity for millions in the Philippines. Catholicism rapidly spread during the early years of Spanish colonialism, in part due to a lack of otherwise centralized religious institutions, other than Islam in the south, which might have challenged it. Its close associations with Filipino identity have placed the Catholic Church at the heart of nationalism, social justice, and other movements, while at the same time has been associated with power, elitism, and exploitation at various points in its history.

Catholicism and the Spanish state were inseparable, and the religious played a predominant role in the administration of the Philippines. As a result, they were deeply implicated in the exploitation of Filipinos; religious orders including the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Recollects, held the largest tracts of land, haciendas and encomiendas granted by the Spanish government, renting plots to tenant farmers. They were also responsible for the religious education and spiritual well-being of their tenants, and some friars championed the interests of their parishes against the exploitation committed by their orders and secular leaders.

By the late Spanish colonial period, the Catholic orders and their friars were the wealthiest and most politically powerful elements within Filipino society. Spanish friars represented the hegemonic power of the Spanish government and foreign Catholic Church, while native priests pushed forward demands for greater authority in in Filipino parishes. Both the Spanish government and the orders blocked efforts by local priests, thereby cultivating a nationalist Filipino priesthood that would support and be supported by the efforts of the 19th century nationalist movement.

Nationalism and Independence

Catholic priests were among the revolutionary figures that deeply inspired nationalist efforts, especially José Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora, who were executed by the Spanish army on suspicion of fomenting the 1872 Cavite Mutiny. The Katipunan code word, GOMBURZA, was an amalgam of all three names. On the other hand, Spanish friars were vilified in nationalist literature, the most influential of all being José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887), which told stories of corruption in the priesthood, and which was banned in Catholic schools well into the 20th century.

The coupling of the Catholic Church and Philippine state proved a challenge for the incoming Americans, who promoted a policy of absolute separation between church and state. They also inherited the problem of the Spanish friars, many of whom had no intention of leaving the Philippines despite hostility from nationalist Filipinos. The Treaty of Paris ensured the orders’ land ownership, but Filipino politicians pushed for the confiscation and redistribution of this land.

While initially it appeared that the Americans favored the friars—much to the fear of the Filipinos—American objectives clearly emphasized the diminution of Catholic power. Americans purchased Catholic-held land from the Church and made it available for sale, ostensibly to the landless, but most land was swept up by wealthy Filipino landholders. At the same time, the American government realized that the Catholic Church held significant power and sought to co-opt it, in part by bringing in American Catholic priests.

Following decades of marginalization and hostility from the American government and Protestant missionaries, the power of the Catholic Church reemerged in the 1930s, in part due its control over Philippine universities, of which the Filipino elite were graduates. As a result, the vast majority of Filipino politicians were Roman Catholic and Catholicism was an important aspect of political identity. Indeed, Ferdinand Marcos, an Aglipayan Catholic, emphasized his adherence to Catholicism and claimed that he had a divine mandate to lead the Philippines.

The Marcos Era

While initially popular, Marcos’ tenure is remembered as a dark period of deep corruption, violence, chaos, and repression of Filipino society. During this period, the Church played various roles. While most priests were largely apolitical and many were afraid of being labeled as “subversives,” thus subject to arrest and abuse, many priests and nuns actively opposed Marcos, some even taking up arms against the state. Marcos initially attempted to coopt the political power of the Church, but quickly became suspicious and turned against it.

By his second term in office, Marcos blamed Catholic priests, many of whom were now openly criticizing him, for fomenting student and leftist protests against his rule. As elsewhere in the world, the Catholic Church in the Philippines was profoundly impacted by Vatican II and was working more closely with impoverished Filipinos on basic issues of social justice. Marcos worked to discredit the Catholic Church, accusing it of sympathizing with Filipino communists. To heighten his own Catholic credentials, he invited Pope Paul VI to the Philippines, though the Pope himself was unwilling to play the role assigned to him and both he and the Church made a clear and concerted effort to sideline Marcos and his wife from official functions.

With the death of his predecessor in 1974, Cardinal Jaime Sin assumed the position of Archbishop and immediately became an influential opposition figure. Under his leadership, the Church called for an end to martial law and a full restoration of civil liberties. He also led the Church in fully embracing a mission of social justice through nonviolent action and the complete liberation of Filipinos from all forms of socially-mediated repression. The Church reinvigorated the Spanish system whereby the friar or priest was at the center of public life in impoverished communities, but the active engagement of community members changed the way that Filipinos related to systems of power and authority. Realizing its efficacy, Marcos attempted to limit this contact by requiring that Church groups acquire government approval before working in communities, a move which the Church was able to frame as Marcos preventing the Church from delivering critical services.

In 1981, 5,000 priests and nuns protested in the streets of Cebu City, outraged by fraudulent elections that led to another term for Marcos, with similar protests in other cities. Again, Marcos hoped to use a visit by the Pope (now John Paul II) to improve his image, and a month prior to his visit Marcos ended the period of martial law as a gesture of goodwill. The lifting of martial law empowered the Church to take further action, encouraging people to protest against his presidency. Following the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Marcos’ most powerful political opponent, the Church rallied around Aquino’s wife, the devoutly Catholic Corazon Aquino. The Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas, was one of few media outlets that provided coverage of the funeral.

The Church used the pasyon, or Passion of Christ, to frame Benigno’s assassination and Cory’s suffering, drawing parallels between her and Mary. The powerful metaphors of suffering and resurrection deployed by the Church served as the catalyst for widespread protests and support for a Cory Aquino presidency, who took Cardinal Sin as a close adviser. Marcos, believing that he could once again rig elections, called for an early election in 1986. The Church supported the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, which sent 500,000 volunteers out to monitor elections, and in sermons emphasized voting as a Christian duty. Cardinal Sin encouraged those who accepted bribes to vote for Aquino anyways, absolving them of the sin of taking Marcos’ money. The Catholic Church was instrumental in the victory of Corazon Aquino, though Marcos himself claimed to have won the presidency.

In response, between February 22nd and 25th, the Church helped to organize massive protests in a show of People Power, in such large numbers that it became impossible for Marcos to ignore. In 1986, he and his family were exiled to Hawaii and Corazon Aquino was sworn in as president.


Steven Shirley, Guided By God: The Legacy of the Catholic Church in Philippine Politics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004).