"The bishops cannot always relegate to the laity the task of leading the country’s political transformation."
Hours before President Rodrigo Roa Duterte delivered his yearly State of the Nation Address, an unexpected scuffle happened in Quiapo’s Basilica of the Black Nazarene. Police officers were reported to have forcibly snatched protest placards from a group of churchgoers during a Mass for Justice and Peace organized by Bishop Broderick Pabillo, currently the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila.
Such “blatant display of police arrogance” was immediately condemned on social media, especially with growing concerns raised with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Law. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who was present during the mass, even threatened to file cases against the police.
But condemnation over the actions of the police was eventually drowned by expressions of disapproval saying that exhibiting protest materials during mass was simply out of place. Churches are supposedly to be houses of prayer that provide people a respite from divisive partisan political posturing.
Later on, Rev. Fr. Douglas Badong, parochial vicar of Quiapo Church, explained that it was the guards and staff of the church who brought the group’s misdemeanor to the attention of the police. They already asked the protesters to hide their placards and flyers, but these requests were blatantly defied, in an attempt to get media attention to their supposedly “lighting rally.” That was when the police came in.
Ironically, the said protestors belonged to Akbayan Citizens Party, a progressive political group that has long advocated legislative measures. This group is at odds with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church on artificial contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage. Formerly the three-term party-list representative of Akbayan in the House of Representatives, Senator Hontiveros was one of the staunchest advocates for the Reproductive Health Act, even criticizing the call by a number of Catholic bishops for “civil disobedience” against the measure.
Senator Hontiveros’ presence during the said mass was, to say the least, far too removed from her anti-Catholic position during the RH debates.
It seems like that many of these progressive groups find no problem working with the Church, whenever it suits their political agenda, but are only too quick to criticize and even condemn the Church at the next opportunity. It reminds us of how the previous Aquino administration capitalized on the support of some Catholic bishops, only for President Benigno Aquino to betray the Church’s trust and aggressively push for the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, even pressuring a number of anti-RH legislators to conveniently absent themselves during the voting. Had they been present on the floor, the RH bill would have been lost.
Its defeat during the RH debates reveals that while the Church may exert influence on the socio-economic issues of the day, it has lost control on the outcomes of democratic politics. This was later on affirmed in 2016 with the election of President Duterte and with the landslide electoral success of administration allies in the 2019 elections, despite the prodding to the contrary of some Catholic bishops.
It seems that the time may have come for the Catholic Church to re-examine its role and participation in Philippine politics.
The Church is definitely not oblivious to the political realities that surround its faithful. In fact, following the election of President Duterte, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines elected as its Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, a pragmatic choice considering his warm personal relationship with the President’s family. Nonetheless, President Duterte’s relations with the Catholic Church hierarchy remained tense and controversial, with the President refusing to mince words when criticizing not only the Church leadership, but even its teachings and practices.
But what is true is that, like critics before him, the Catholic Church will definitely outlive the President, and it will continue as before to play an important role in Filipino society. What is unsure, however, is whether or not such influence will extend to the people’s political choices.
Clearly, the passage of the Reproductive Health Act signals a rethinking in the ways the Church engages with the political society. Prior to it, the Church’s role in political engagement was clear – absolute in matters of faith and morals, while remaining issue-based in terms of temporal and distinctively civil issues. Thus until then, there was never a need for a strong Catholic political presence. The situation changed with the RH law, when civil legislation, at least from the Church’s perspective, encroached on the boundaries of morality and impinged on the sanctity of human life and the stability of marriage. Sadly, despite its towering role in the restoration of Philippine democracy, the Church found itself helpless as the President and other politicians voted in favor of the RH law in open defiance to the Church’s position.
The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines presented a good rule of thumb, “that pastors have competence in the moral principles governing politics, and that laity have competence in active and direct partisan politics.” Partisan politics have the tendency to weaken the Church’s spiritual authority and because of its highly divisive nature, to damage the unity that its bishops and clergy represent.
But such prohibition from partisan political engagement, the Council admits, is not absolute. “The distinction between moral principles governing politics on the one hand and partisan politics on the other is not always clear-cut in real life and they sometimes become inextricably linked – as when the bare enunciating of moral principles becomes, because of circumstances, in actuality an act of partisan politics.”
There will be another election in less than two years, and perhaps, the time has come for the Catholic Church to act together in support of policies in public life that are consistent with our moral convictions. The bishops have the duty to form the consciences of the faithful to make choices based on Catholic moral and social teachings. In fact, Catholics have the responsibility to ensure that their public action is guided by their beliefs, and that their political choices are consistent with Church’s moral principles. Instead of threatening democracy, as it is commonly believed, Catholics who bring their moral convictions into public life actually enrich our nation’s moral fiber.
The Church’s political engagement must stem from its moral and social teachings, and rightly so, it must free itself from being exploited by an opposing political group who seeks its approval or popularity whenever it suits them. Contrary to what many people think, it is not the Church that meddles in politics – the reality in the country is that more often than not, the politicians are the ones who drag the Church into their politics.
It is time for the Church to fight back for the Catholic vote. The bishops cannot always relegate to the laity the task of leading the country’s political transformation. As pastors, they have the duty to lead their flock into a more meaningful and principled political participation. Even Pope Francis has said on more than a couple of times, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.”
But in what way should this Catholic vote take form? To reduce the Catholic vote to a simple endorsement of candidates during elections is failure to grasp the full intent of the Church’s political involvement. A Catholic vote must be a partisan political counterculture. While respecting the individual political choices of the faithful, the Church must be even more aggressive in encouraging the laity in the partisan political process. This should include efforts not only to inform and educate the lay about the hefty responsibility of exercising one’s right to vote in a manner dictated by the Gospel, but even more importantly to form and support political candidates who are committed to work for the common good and bear witness to the Church’s social and moral teachings in public life.
There is a conscious effort to sideline the role of religion in modern society and to impose a cultural and moral mentality that runs contrary to the Church’s consistent ethic of life. Before it is too late, the emergence of a Catholic partisan political counterculture is of outmost urgency, especially in a nation of growing moral relativism and social indifference. Failing to do so, the Church will remain but a dispensable pawn in the nation’s political game, with strange bedfellows wooing the Church when it is politically convenient for them, but hurriedly abandoning it when it is no longer expedient.