January 25, 2008

A call for moral leadership

One of the key elements of the People Power I and II uprisings that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and then the Estrada presidency was the timely intervention of Jaime Cardinal Sin -- the jovial and incomparably politically astute head of the wealthy Archdiocese of Manila -- to tip the balance against the ruling regimes in favor of Opposition leaders "Cory" Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

It is quite understandable that in these politically volatile times when another sitting President is again accused of corruption, electoral fraud, violations of human rights as well as maneuvering to stay in power long after her term ends, many quarters pine for the emergence of another Cardinal Sin.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) gathers for its biennial plenary session this January. There have been a flurry of meetings in the run-up to the CBCP meeting as both Malacanang and the stalwarts of anti-Arroyo groups attempt to get the ear of the bishops and convince to them to lend moral authority to their respective positions.

Executive Secretary Ermita has admitted to inviting a group of bishops to the Palace for briefings by Cabinet secretaries as well as to hear out the church leaders’ concerns. In the past Mrs. Arroyo's operatives have been caught red-handed distributing envelops stuffed with cash right where their Eminences were holding their closed-door meetings; in the process both the giver and the recipients of such presidential largesse have become tainted.

The GMA regime's defenders have also taken advantage of the built-in conservatism of individual bishops, i.e. their tendency to concern themselves exclusively with their diocesan affairs and not be bothered with national issues.

Malacanang is notorious for channeling government funds into the social amelioration programs of government-friendly if not pro-GMA bishops and priests. This is viewed by many as a thinly-disguised move to further coopt the princes of the church and sustain their outspoken or tacit support for the government.

In contrast, the anti-Arroyo forces have had neither the clout nor the resources to get the bishops to pay attention to their appeals, much less to convince them to use their moral suasion to intervene in the political arena. Last year's CBCP stand against moves to amend the Constitution in order to allow Mrs. Arroyo to extend her term of office beyond 2010 was a rare exception.

It would seem that only the gravity and the unabated deterioration of the socio-economic and political situation has kept the bishops from completely retreating into the safety of political ambiguity or passivity.

The legacy of the late Cardinal Sin has dimmed and diminished over time especially since signals emanating from the Vatican itself have discouraged such kind of clerical activism. Certainly the Pope's partitioning of the once mighty archdiocese of Manila into four distinct dioceses, each with its own head, has served to undercut the power -- both spiritual and temporal -- of any would-be Sin successor.

In any case, it is clear that the bishops continue to exercise considerable influence over the laity who constitutes a sizeable majority of the population. This influence is first of all spiritual and moral, and by extension political, as the moral dimension of political problems and issues assumes prominence and urgency.

Whatever be the final judgment on Cardinal Sin's controversial intervention in the political arena, the fact is the bishops cannot isolate themselves from what is going on and cannot continue to remain silent, wittingly or unwittingly serving as props to a regime widely perceived to be illegitimate, morally bankrupt and the cause of intolerable hardships and brutality inflicted upon the people.

In fact the bishops need not do a Cardinal Sin -- by way of taking the political lead and directly calling for either the resignation or the ouster of GMA -- in order to fulfill their mandates as shepherds of their flock. All that the faithful asks of the church leadership is to provide the moral compass, the parameters and guidelines of what constitutes right and wrong, good and evil.

For example, is it all right for Mrs. Arroyo to admit to improperly calling Comelec Commissioner Garcillano in 2004 to discuss how her votes as a presidential candidate can be assured and then obstruct all attempts to investigate such impropriety including Congressional moves to determine whether she had engaged in wholesale electoral fraud to win a new six-year term?

Is it all right for Mrs. Arroyo to invoke executive privilege and prevent a thoroughgoing investigation into allegations of multi-billion peso corrupt deals involving members of her Cabinet, her husband and political supporters cum business cronies?

Is it morally correct that all the people, many of whom are barely surviving, are paying indirect taxes in the form of a 12 per cent value-added tax on goods and services, while the Arroyo administration uses the money for debt servicing, gargantuan military and police budgets and for bribing congressmen and local government officials into tolerating the regime’s wrongdoings and partaking of the orgy of graft and corruption?

Is it acceptable for Mrs. Arroyo to praise a notorious human rights violator, Gen. Jovito Palparan, as a champion of democracy and protect him from prosecution long after innumerable international bodies and even her own Melo Commission had identified his culpability for ordering extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture as well as the displacement of entire civilian communities? Is it all right to turn a blind eye to such gross human rights violations in the name of counter-insurgency?

The crisis of political legitimacy of the Arroyo regime has become a crisis of a morally bankrupt leadership as proven by its own sins of commission and omission. In survey after survey, it is seen by a majority to be consistent in lying to the people, in protecting plunderers, murderers and torturers and in aggravating the economic plight of the people despite glowing economic reports and empty promises of ending hunger, poverty and inequality.

The bishops and the CBCP are not being asked to do the impossible. It is their duty and responsibility as spiritual and moral leaders to denounce evil whenever and wherever they see it and to accompany and guide the faithful as they battle such evil – in whatever arena, including the political.

They must show the example lest the Church, the laity in particular, construe that faith and religion are divorced from the real world, or worse, irrelevant to the life-and-death struggles and everyday concerns of ordinary people. ###

*Published in Business World
25-26 January 2008


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