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United front of bishops needed amid Philippine political crisis

Some lay leaders say they are confused due to the mixed signals they are receiving from Catholic leaders

United front of bishops needed amid Philippine political crisis

Supporters of vice-presidential candidate Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, display banners with her image during a rally in Manila on Nov. 15, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 15, 2022 03:42 AM GMT

Updated: March 15, 2022 05:12 AM GMT

Filipino voters, mostly lay Catholics, want to perform their civic duty to actively participate in and evangelize politics.

Pope Francis has always said that the “lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God” (Evangelii Gaudium, 102), that the “hour of the laity” has arrived, and that in obedience to Christ they should get involved in a “better politics … healthy politics,” the kind of politics that aims at social charity and common good (Fratelli Tutti, 177-183).

It goes without saying that the May 2022 elections are crucial, although “crucial is an understatement,” according to Teddy Santiago of a nationwide group called Laiko. “It is an emergency. It might be now or never,” he added.

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The problem is not in the desired involvement of the laity but in the perception of disunity among church leaders who are supposed to show a united front in offering Christian principles for discernment.

Bishops have denied they are meddling in politics, but critics say they do. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Bishop Pablo David, Archbishop Jose Cabantan and Archbishop Emeritus Antonio Ledesma, both of Cagayan de Oro, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, Bishop Joel Baylon, Bishop Julius Tonel of Ipil, Bishop Emeritus Antonio Tobias and many others have prayed over or graced events dedicated to a particular candidate who is viewed as the antithesis of the culture of death, corruption, injustice and distortion of truth.

In Agusan, Bishop Cosme Damian Almedilla provided clear pastoral guidelines on what priests and religious can and cannot do during the election period, although some reports with a spin claimed that he threatened with sanctions his priests who directly participate in partisan politics.

"It appears Catholic voters are seeking more unified pastoral guidance from church leaders and expect the shepherds to lead by example"

The public endorsement by El Shaddai founder Brother Mike Velarde of the tandem of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio prompted El Shaddai spiritual adviser Bishop Teodoro Bacani to explain that Velarde spoke only for himself and not the whole charismatic group. Observers did ask: Was Bishop Bacani’s prompt clarification meddling in politics?

Last month former CBCP president and Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma reminded his clergy that the pulpit is not the right place “to campaign for any candidate.”

“I am treading a very thin line,” Bishop Roberto Gaa of Novaliches said after he admitted that there are grey areas in the evangelization of partisan politics, even as he stressed the importance of church leaders providing guidance to voters during Mass at the Quezon Memorial Circle a few weeks ago.

Some lay leaders say they are confused due to the mixed signals they are receiving amid the political crisis. It appears Catholic voters are seeking more unified pastoral guidance from church leaders and expect the shepherds to lead by example, no less, when the example of episcopal harmony is essential.

When President Marcos called for a plebiscite in 1975, urging the people to approve all the actions he had taken as president, the Catholic hierarchy resisted it. In their 1975 statement, the CBCP managed to quote St. Thomas More’s adage, “We are the king’s good servant, but God’s first,” in reference to conscientious objectors to political exercises during martial law, which in effect was a call for civil disobedience: Do not go out and vote!

In 1976, when Marcos set up a second referendum, asking the people to approve the continuation of martial law, the CBCP administrative council, headed by Cardinal Julio Rosales of Cebu, encouraged Filipinos to go out and vote, a position contradictory to the January 1975 statement of the CBCP.

In reaction, 14 bishops signed a statement entitled “A Declaration for Human Dignity at the Polls” that classified martial law as “a regime of coercion and fear, of institutionalized deception and manipulation.” The prelates said it would be immoral to participate in another “vicious farce that further degrades our people,” a position diagonally opposed to the statement issued by Cardinal Rosales.

Amid this internal division, the CBCP received an unprecedented communication from the Vatican. In a joint letter, Cardinal Sebastian Baggio of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Cardinal Eduardo Pironio of the Sacred Congregation for Religious urged the Filipino shepherds to put their acts together.

"They also realized that fraternal harmony was needed to fight injustice as they learned, albeit the hard way, to be attentive to the Holy Spirit speaking in that assembly"

During the CBCP general assembly in January 1977, each bishop was given a copy of the final draft of the pastoral letter which strongly denounced the human rights violations under martial law and which insisted that the social ministry of the Church was a constitutive dimension of the mission of evangelization. “This is our task. This is our mission,” the statement said.

During deliberations on the final draft, the clashing of ideas in the august assembly became so intense that papal nuncio Archbishop Bruno Torpigliani, who was apparently complaining about the radical tendencies in the assembly, had to intervene.

The bishops knew that, as a whole, the CBCP was positioned on the moral high ground over the contemptible abuses of martial law. They also realized that fraternal harmony was needed to fight injustice as they learned, albeit the hard way, to be attentive to the Holy Spirit speaking in that assembly. At the end, the CBCP decided to become the one voice of the voiceless and “courageously made a moral judgment, denouncing the excesses of the regime.”

At last, the bishops unanimously put their names to the pastoral letter. And it was the very first time that all bishops present during a general assembly had put their signatures to one single statement, a pastoral message meant to be read from the pulpit in every Mass "de Aparri hasta Jolo."

Msgr. Lope Robredillo of Borongan, Samar, remembered 1977 as “a turning point in CBCP history” when bishops across the archipelago achieved much-needed episcopal synergy.

Can the bishops today, less than two months before the elections, put their acts together and present a rallying united front which is much needed to prevent a return of a Marcos to Malacañan?

* Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano is a Catholic scholar, public educator and author of the "Catholic Social Teachings in CONTEMPORARY Philippine History: 500 YOC (1971-2021), Volume Three" (Claretian, 2022). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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