Philippine government and the country’s bishops need to remember they serve the same flock
Melo Acuna, Manila | Philippines January 15, 2018
The Philippines’ Catholic Bishops’ Conference, established 73 years ago, has raised the ire of some people in government over statements and exhortations that were classified controversial, and at times disturbing.
Previous and present Philippine government leaders have downplayed the bishops’ statements by saying priests and religious leaders should instead exert extra efforts in responding to people’s spiritual needs.
These political leaders, through their media allies, said politics is best addressed by elected and appointed officials, not by priests and bishops.
At the height of martial law in the 1970s, while most bishops remained silent on human rights abuses committed by state agents, one of the social action arms of the Catholic Church, the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace, and the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines attended to the needs of human rights victims and their kin.
A priest from Lucena Diocese, on the main island of Luzon, said when people fail to be helped by elected and appointed officials, they go to their parish churches for redress and assistance.
One of the most controversial statements came from the then archbishop of Cebu, the soft-spoken Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, who was then president of the bishops’ conference. He spoke of the bishops’ assessment of the 1986 snap elections that led to the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos.
“In our considered judgment, the polls were unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct. And we condemn especially the modes of fraudulence and irregularities,” read the bishops’ statement.
In just a matter of days, then Manila archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin rallied Catholics to Manila’s main thoroughfare, Edsa Avenue, which resulted in strongman Marcos’ departure for Hawaii.
The bishops later focused on other issues including the toxic contamination of former US military bases in the country and even made urgent appeals for peace in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.
Even before the 2016 national elections, then Davao city mayor and presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte issued a mouthful of expletive-laden statements against the Catholic Church and its leaders.
President Duterte accused priests and bishops of corruption, womanizing and other excesses. The president’s expletives against the church were made amid the bishops’ continuing commitment to the work of social justice, rule of law and due process.
In 2017, Bishop Joel Baylon of Legazpi called on his priests to ring church bells at nine every evening as a symbolic call for an end to drug-related killings in the country.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila also rallied his priests to ring their church bells at eight in the evening to remember those who have died in the government’s relentless war against drugs.
A priest from Manila said his parish has regularly seen three to five unexplained killings every so often. Asked how he knew of these killings, the priest said the victims’ relatives come to him requesting funeral Masses and prayers for the dead.
While observers believe Duterte appears incapable of accepting criticism especially about his relentless anti-drug campaign, there are opportunities for dialogue.
Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, a friend of Duterte, now leading the bishops’ conference, is looking forward to continuing engagement with the government and its leaders by keeping communication lines open.
The 66-year old prelate said the manner of conveying one’s message greatly matters.
Archbishop Valles said the country’s bishops are expected to submit suggested topics for dialogue in their plenary assembly later this month.
The prelate said the difference between the bishops’ conference and political organizations is that the former is a collegial body where issues are discussed and decided. He said it is unlike how political organizations work.
The Davao prelate said he is in a way fortunate to have come from the southern Philippine city and that he and Duterte know each other personally. He, however, downplayed media accounts of his close association with the president.
He also said that no leader, including Duterte, could ignore the fact that at least 83 million, or 79.5 percent of the Philippine population, is Catholic.
It is in the best interest of both the government and the church to keep the communication lines open because both institutions have to serve the same flock.
Melo Acuna has worked as a broadcast journalist for the past three decades. He has spent time with faith-based groups in various dioceses in the Philippines through his work as reporter, and later as station manager of church-run radio Veritas 846