A Rejoinder To President-Elect Duterte: Church As People Of God:

I AM A SINNER,” Pope Francis replied when asked if he would accept his election as pontiff, “But I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of Penance.”

In a separate conversation with Fr. Antonio Spadoro, SJ, published in the Jesuit magazine, America, the Pontiff again responded in no uncertain terms when asked point blank, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” “…I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon, and thus I felt my motto was very true for me: “Miserando atque eligiendo” (By having mercy and by choosing Him).

In this rejoinder to President-elect Duterte, I cite the words of Pope Francis to underline the fact that the Church considers itself as a deeply-flawed instrument in the hands of God who works wonders, and thus is able to heal the wounds of a hurting world that is deeply divided. Moreover, I write from the perspective of “pilgrim voices” – those of us engaged in an essentially unfinished journey.

“People of God” best captures the core of the Church articulated in the 2nd Vatican Council. Church does not refer to clergy alone, but to faithful and lay including those of us who may belong but do not in any official manner represent the Church. It is this modest voice which aspires to respond in the name of the nameless — “we, the people of God.”

It is in this spirit that I accept the President-Elect’s invitation not so much to debate but to dialogue on the ways in which the Church can both help or hinder our country’s progress and our people’s welfare. I do not agree with all the positions taken by my Church, but because I have learned to love this imperfect vessel bequeathed by our Lord to Peter I accept it – warts and all, and in this context wish to share my thoughts.

I have always believed in the “moral miracle” which is the Church. It is a flawed institution composed of men and women with feet of clay. The miracle is that it has survived through the centuries, though it has been misled and debased by lesser mortals. It has survived corrupt papal leaders, monks of dubious reputations, priests who have abused the trust people have given them. Yet, precisely because He Who is Lord is able to write straight with crooked lines, we now are witnesses to a living institution that is engaged in some of the most inspired initiatives in our world today which continue to inspire our youth in an awesome manner:

  • the “preferential option for the poor”, the mission to the most vulnerable and marginalized in society as in the favelas of Latin America and the sprouting townships like “Soweto” in South Africa;
  • the sustained struggle for social justice expressed in the papal encyclicals, Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples) and Pacem in Terris, (Peace on Earth), addressing the aspirations of the wretched of the earth and the demands of workers, peasants, and the urban poor;
  • the unerring call to care for the earth expressed in Laudato Si! (the first line of praise from the Canticle of St Francis) which courageously challenges the captains of industry and the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world to bequeath a healthier future to our children as the world confronts the demands of climate justice in an inhospitable time;
  • the healing appeal to forgiveness and reconciliation, to a just peace for our times – in season and out of season in countries torn by fratricidal armed conflict in Africa, Asia, the Amtericas, Europe and the Middle East;

We can find many faults with our Church, its somewhat extravagant trappings, its gilded temples and its ornate processions, the princes of the Church who may be out of step with their flock or those in authority who may abuse the gentle and the innocent in their care.

Saints, it is said, are sinners who keep on trying. In our country, the Church has had a chequered history with a mixed review. But the people of God have journeyed forward, moved on, faltered and perhaps at times failed, but not for want of trying – witness how it has inspired the people’s power experience thirty years ago which though faintly still resonates today on the eve of the canvassing of votes, particularly, because on the opposite sides of the political divide stands a Marcos heir and on the other side the once largely-unknown Leni Robredo from Naga.

In the political arena, the Church has the responsibility for the formation of conscience so that the faithful are able to make informed choices. It was Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ, prelate of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, who articulated the five Cs as criteria in the choice of candidates in his attempt to assist people to make their own decisions based on time-honored principles, that is, vote for people according to your appreciation of their possession of the following qualities: conscience, competence, compassion, companionship and commitment.

When we speak of the separation of Church and State, what I believe is largely at issue is the prohibition of the intervention of the Church in the affairs of State, and vice versa. What is most objectionable, in my opinion, is when religious leaders of difference denominations, sects or Churches order their adherents to vote for their preferred candidates; when they decide whom their followers must vote for – without leaving space for collective discernment and honest discussion or dissent, if they must.

It is this practice which we must abandon in future electoral contests. The directives or prescription by church people to vote for certain candidates under pain of proscription – this is a practice that is objectionable and which should be discontinued and stopped, once and for all.

Obviously, this dialogue remains unfinished. No one is destined to have the last word. That is not the nature of an honest-to-goodness dialogue, where the objective is not to score points but to appeal to reason, and attempt to reach some form of understanding which at times results in some kind of consensus.

It is my hope that we of different faiths and diverse political persuasions can continue to exchange thoughts, debate or dissent if we must, with one end in mind: to improve the lot of our people in the margins of society. At the end of the day, that is what being servant leaders is all about: not so much to lead, but to serve our people, particularly, the lowliest of them all, where His face shines most brightly.

Ed Garcia taught political science at the University of the Philippines, interdisciplinary studies at the Ateneo de Manila and serves as a consultant on formation at the FEU Diliman. Previously, he studied philosophy and theology at the Loyola House of Studies, now LST, at the Ateneo de Manila University Campus. He worked at Amnesty International and International Alert in London for over two decades, and became one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution. Updated 25 January 2017.

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