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Philippine bishops join chorus of disapproval for president

Catholic prelates voice opposition: Protestants want Aquino to resign

Philippine bishops join chorus of disapproval for president

Picture by Vincent Go.

Paolo Affatato for Vatican Insider/La Stampa

July 30, 2014

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President Benigno Aquino Jr.’s excessively long honeymoon with Philippine voters seems to have ended.  He and the country’s bishops skipped the honeymoon altogether, however. President Aquino Jr.’s popularity rating has reached an all-time low. He is a liberal and son of national heroes Benigno Aquino Sr. and Corazon Cojuangco. Philippine bishops, Catholics and Protestants alike, never agreed with his stances on sexual education, contraception, birth control and abortion, which they considered to be too “secularist”.

Now they are keen to stress to the nation that there never was any romantic spark between the Church and the current President. In fact, they seem to be doing all that they can to ensure he steps down for good. They are even prepared to back his impeachment or call for his resignation.

 On 28 July, Aquino gave his fifth State of the Nation address before Parliament. This eagerly-awaited speech, which is addressed to Philippine citizens once a year, presents a summary of government policies and choices. This year Aquino Jr. used “Obama–style” rhetoric, focusing on ideals and highlighting his commitment to democracy and the successes of his administration, as well as the progress made in the field of education and the launch of a number of public infrastructure projects that had been put on hold for decades.

“It was a stimulating speech but it lacked substance,” the Bishop of Balanga (a city on Manila Bay), Ruperto Santos said dismissively. “Have all of the President’s achievements in the field of governance and the economy had any direct and concrete impact on the lives of ordinary people?” the bishop asked reflecting the local Episcopal Conference’s skepticism. The president’s speech missed out key issues such as unemployment, the peace process in South Philippines and the extreme poverty endured by thousands of families.

The very day before he gave his public address, the bishops representing the United Church of Christ in the Philippines - which is made up of five Protestant denominations - sent out a very bold appeal: “Convert or resign”.

Importantly, the appeal as made after the national scandal and controversy surrounding the Disbursement Acceleration Program had broken out. The Disbursement Acceleration Program, is a stimulus package that aims to speed up public spending at the President’s discretion. Aquino Jr. was accused of betraying people’s trust and wishing to destroy any attempts to fight corruption.

The President engaged in a dangerous power conflict with the Supreme Court, which judged his expenditure plan to be “unconstitutional” at the start of July. Under this plan, funds were to be transferred from one government office to another and there was also reference to funding of projects which were not included in the national budget.  The government contested the Court’s ruling, ruffling the feathers of commentators, lawyers and religious leaders who were not willing to accept this.

Catholic archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Philippine Bishops’ Conference, urged the President in office to respect the Constitution and the rule of law a “fundamental pre-requisite that needs to be protected as a moral concern” and “as a basis for the common good.”

The way Philippine bishops see it, Aquino has conveniently ignored the public’s opposition in order to put an end to the corrupt “pork barrel” system, which encourages misgovernment. The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), also known as the “pork barrel”, allocated to politicians such as congressmen and senators to be used to fund programs and projects in their districts as they deem necessary. But the fund encourages cronyism and corruption and is not popular among Filipinos.

Aquino is accused of openly violating the “check-and-balance” system mentioned in the 1987 Constitution by "deceptively renaming allocated budgets as savings and using them for projects and purposes that had not undergone budget approval by the legislature." Too much was therefore left up to the discretion of politicians who did what they wanted with public money, mismanaging it.

This is why the Church is so openly and staunchly opposed to all this.

The situation has led to calls for the president’s impeachment. These calls have come from political opponents, members of parliament, scholars and even clerics and bishops.

The former president of the Bishops’ Conference, Oscar Cruz and the theologian Benjamin Alforque Sachet – a Biblicist who chaired the Justice and Peace commission of the religious orders – were among those who signed in favour of Aquino Jr.’s impeachment. The complainants accuse Aquino Jr. of "culpably violating the Constitution by usurping Congress' power of the purse … exacerbating the corrupt pork barrel system (and) violating his oath of office.”

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