Businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles has finally turned herself in to the president following a bounty from Benigno Aquino himself and accusations she embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds. Lawmakers and state officials are deeply implicated. Meanwhile, people have voiced their protests against corruption, both on the internet and in person with a ‘million people” march in Manila and across the rest of the Philippines on Monday. Among the crowds were priests, nuns, seminarians and even Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle himself, who asked for everyone to remember the poor amid these scandals. What’s next in this corruption scandal which has captured the country’s collective imagination? People are skeptical. Many have posted on social media sites that nothing will come of it. Others, even more cynical after years of government sponsored graft, say it’s all part of a script in an age-old game of corruption that has destroyed the moral fiber of the Philippines. And what does it say about the Church in one of Asia’s only majority Catholic nations?
Aside from reports that some leading members of the clergy benefited from the anomalous “pork barrel” available to every legislator (supposedly for development projects,) there are other institutions that have hardly bathed themselves in glory. This week, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, an influential organization of missionaries and religious congregations, voiced its opposition to making Napoles a state witness, which is a necessity if the Philippines is to get to the heart of what is believed to be rampant and widespread state corruption. Other leading religious figures have been more in tune with the public mood. Benedictine nun Mary John Mananzan said Napoles "does not deserve immunity" even if she can be instrumental in ferreting out the truth – and therefore the officials – behind these multimillion dollar scams. Recent audits showed less than 20 percent of development monies have been spent properly and Napoles is linked to embezzlements totaling an estimated US$230 million. Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila warned against "efforts to divert" the public’s attention to the case of Napoles instead of focusing on the need to abolish entirely the "pork barrel" system which gives 200 million pesos ($4.5 million) to each of the country’s 24 senators and 70 million pesos to 294 Lower House lawmakers, supposedly to develop the country. "The real issue here is... about the pork barrel and the lawmakers who are traitors to the country," said Pabillo. The new head of the country's Catholic bishops' conference Archbishop Socrates Villegas agreed, saying that the issue is not just about the shameless corruption of government officials, but morality. And when it comes to morality, Church people surely have to speak up. Villegas hit the nail on the head when he said that part of the problem is "the diminishing relevance and eroding credibility of moral shepherds. "It is the failure of religion to make morality and ethics the foundation of all human actions and endeavors, after almost five hundred years of Gospel presence," he added. Indeed, what have the country's bishops and priests and other Church leaders done all these years? This must sound naive, or plain stupid, but in a country where about 90 percent of people claim to be Christian or Catholic, how does this unbridled, un-Christian and immoral cheating of the poor continue? It is time for noisy bishops, clergy, nuns and seminarians to examine their consciences regarding their role in a Church that is supposed to be for and of the poor. Is attending rallies and demonstrations enough? Is it the most that they can do to respond to the call by Pope Francis to get out their comfort zones? Villegas said Church leaders must "take responsibility for our failure to teach, and to take fresh new steps to restore morality in public and private life, which is a vital component of the Church’s mission." In what could be a painful admission, he said: "We brother priests have failed to inspire our people to imitate Christ. We have failed to lead them to intimacy with him. Are our parishioners angered by the violation of the Commandments 'Thou shall not steal' and 'Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s goods'? Or are they protesting because personal rights have been violated? "Let the national news of the recent weeks about extensive corruption in governance make us more humble as moral guides and more zealous as lighthouses of morality in the midst of the storms besetting our boat," said Villegas. As Church leaders, and shepherds of God's flock, the clergy and the bishops should be courageous in denouncing evil as they bring to life the "prophetic teaching" of Jesus Christ. "As we denounce evil and sin, we must in the same breath propose imitating Christ as the only alternative to our social ills.... It is not enough to condemn evil. We must proclaim the goodness in each one. Overcoming evil by the power of good is the alternative we offer," Villegas said. Unfortunately, it is not something new. Any clergyman worth his theology diploma should know the basic teachings of the Church, including what the social encyclicals have to say. Many of the most vocal critics of government, especially the leftist militants who have been branded as godless communists by the Church and the government in the past, will most likely raise their eyebrows at Villegas’ statement that "as we protest, we must immediately offer Christ as the only choice, otherwise the protests can lead to godless solutions.” Aside from theological interpretations of what the Church – the clergy and the people – can do in the midst of the "erosion" of society's moral fiber, what else can be done? Villegas said the rejection of the politics of patronage, the call for an in depth investigation of dishonest officials and the cry for the full application of the law will not stop corruption unless "we regain our fear of the Lord as a people.” What is revolutionary, although not new, was Villegas' call for the Philippines’ Church leaders to "smell like the sheep and get out of the swivel chair." Joe Torres is the UCAN bureau chief in Manila
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