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´People power´ in basic communities can fight corruption

  • Philippines
  • March 04 2009
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Foreigners and citizens alike say the Philippines has the most corrupt leadership and economy.

Why then is "people power" not doing its job of ousting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, accused of corruption and cheating, as it did with Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001?

Retired Jesuit Bishop Francisco Claver says Filipinos are cynical toward politicians and do not fully recognize corruption as a sin.





Retired Jesuit Bishop Francisco Claver.


Compared to the Marcos´ years, when bishops were active in the social justice and peace commission of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of the Philippines (CBC), "people power" today is different. It involves hard and unglamorous work on values formation before "moral transformation" can happen, he says.

He notes, however, that parish-based Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), where neighbors gather to pray, reflect and act on community concerns based on the Gospel, have been recognized for their efforts to stop corruption in road building projects and fighting off illegal loggers and miners.

Bishop Claver, 80, holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Colorado. In the Society of Jesus, he served as associate member of its Institute on Church and Social Issues, executive secretary of the Social Apostolate of Jesuits in East Asia/Oceania, and lecturer at East Asian Pastoral Institute near Manila.

The first bishop among the indigenous northern Philippines Igorot people was appointed to serve in the former Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers from 1973-1979 before the late Pope John Paul II merged it with the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Bishop Claver has also drafted numerous documents for the Federation of Asian Bishops´ Conferences and Philippine bishops, including the CBCP´s February 1986 Post-Election statement that declared Marcos had no moral basis to rule as he had claimed victory in fraudulent presidential polls.

Following is Bishop Claver´s analysis of the role of "people power" today in fighting corruption in the Philippines:

People power -- the peaceful rising up of a country´s citizens against an oppressive government -- is generally admitted to have started in the Philippines. So we Filipinos are being asked today if we have lost that collective power to eliminate evil.

For evil there is in the Philippines, great evil. Corruption in government seems to be at an all time high, people are wondering why there is no real groundswell against it in the general perception that it is even more corrupt than the one overthrown in the first people power rebellion.

And they ask if corruption is so systemic and hopeless that any effort to correct it ends in futility. Further, if in the people power revolution of 1986 the Church played a vital role, why is it not doing so now? It seems the Church has lost the vibrancy it had in the ´70s and ´80s.

These are hard questions to answer in a short essay like this one. But there are a few points that can be made in their regard.

Let me start with the phenomenon of people power itself. There is a strong appreciation now, 23 years after EDSA, that people power, though first exercised in the political sphere, is basically a moral power. [EDSA is an acronym for Epifano de los Santos Avenue, the street where more than 1 million people gathered to pray during the 1986 people power revolution that ousted Marcos.]

And when it is used -- or seen to be used -- mainly as political power, it fails, so politicians here in the Philippines who have tried to use it for their purposes are finding out to their grief.

The same can be said when movements masquerade as people power but are seen to be driven and tainted by politics -- they do not prosper either.

The sorry state of government corruption in the country is, to our deep shame, a byword to the rest of the world. So, why do we not kick the present government out?

One reason is that unlike at the first EDSA, there is no clear alternative to the incumbent president. There was one at the first EDSA -- and she was voted in by the majority of our people in an electoral exercise.

Now the prospect of one of our present crop of would-be presidents succeeding President Arroyo scares us no end. Politicians in the Philippines are unfortunately (but with good reason) universally suspect and there is nothing to guarantee that the next president will be different.

In Philippine politics, self-interest is only too obviously the name of the game. The cynical attitude towards politicians is a general one and there is precious little to make us have it otherwise.

In the social malaise our country is mired in now, the Church´s role is crystal clear. For the past 60 years of the CBCP´s existence, the bishops have been speaking out constantly against political corruption.

Now they are seeing something that they have overlooked in the past: It is that a great part of the problem of corruption in public life is that our people most often regard it as "SOP" -- standard operating procedure -- for politicians. That simply means corruption is not defined as something particularly evil, a sin.

So now the efforts of the Church are geared towards changing that outlook -- a huge problem of values change, of moral reform.

The bishops also see that the task will not be done by simply speaking out: Only organized, persistent action will do, from top to bottom in the Church.

This is where the BECs come into the picture as precisely the vehicle for wide and effective change. And we are finding out it is hard work -- humdrum, unglamorous, even at times thankless.

Unlike during the time of martial law -- when street protests were the vogue and were participated in widely, and with a lot of fanfare by Church people, thus giving the impression of a vibrant, engaged Church -- today the patient plodding that is involved in forming the BECs is what marks its present preoccupation.

The focus now in many dioceses is the formation of BECs, in which values formation is precisely the main target -- getting Christians to be concerned, not just with personal spirituality and conversion, but with social transformation as well (to use the term that is most often used.)

The bishops have asked for the formation of "circles of discernment" at all levels of the Church to grapple with the national problem of corruption. Those circles are ready-made in dioceses where the BECs are already flourishing.

The hope is that when there is general acknowledgement that corruption is evil, only then will we begin to see real progress in combating it.
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