By Luis V. Teodoro
About 84% of Filipinos are at least nominally Catholic, which makes the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines potentially the most powerful force in politics and governance. But it is the minority sects, among them and especially the 2.6 million-strong Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC), that have most used their numbers in their perennial focus on electing into public office those whom they think will best serve their temporal interests. The INC on May 3 chose, and told its members to vote for, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Sara Duterte for President and Vice-President, respectively.
The media habitually describes the INC as “influential” due to its widely assumed capacity to command its membership to vote according to the preferences of its leadership. If that assumption is correct, the INC numbers can make the difference between a candidate’s defeat or victory.
Politicians of various stripes have thus sought its support in every election. The INC has always obliged by announcing before Election Day whom it is endorsing for the country’s most important elective posts including those for senators and congressmen.
Rarely has the Catholic Church openly endorsed anyone, although some of its cardinals and bishops, without necessarily speaking for the Church as an institution, have in the past named whom they would prefer not to be President. The late Jaime Cardinal Sin, for example, in 1992 implied in his public utterances that he would prefer someone else other than Fidel Ramos, a Protestant, to be President. In 1998 he described as “catastrophic” a Joseph Estrada Presidency. But his saying whom he did not want to President did not prevent Ramos’ and Estrada’s election, although the “catastrophic” Estrada Presidency was eventually removed from office by direct people’s action in 2001.
In seeming departure from its usual practice, on May 4 some 1,200 Catholic priests and bishops who were apparently speaking for the institutional Church went beyond advising the faithful to elect, without naming names, only those candidates who are honest, incorruptible, competent, etc. They instead announced their endorsement of Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo for the Presidency of the Republic and of Senator Francisco “Kiko” Pangilinan for the Vice-Presidency. Church reservations over endorsing specific candidates in such mundane but crucial concerns as elections seems to have given way to the urgency of addressing the ongoing and worsening political, economic, social, and moral crisis in this, the only (supposedly) Christian country in Asia.
The priests and bishops indeed urged — they did not command — the laity to make the “moral choice” of voting for VP Robredo and Senator Pangilinan on May 9 for the sake of this country and its people. But it was hardly surprising, the alternatives being, for the Catholic Church, no alternative at all.
The Church was a leading participant in overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, and it stands to reason that it could not support his son, who, in denying any wrongdoing by his father’s martial law regime, is in effect saying that Church people were wrong in joining the millions who removed Marcos Senior from power and forced his family into exile. It could not have supported Sara Duterte either. But it was only partly due to her father’s antipathy to the Church and his calling the Christian God names. Neither could the Church have endorsed Duterte enablers “Isko” Moreno Domagoso and Panfilo Lacson, or the boxer, death penalty advocate, and former Duterte ally Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao.
The involvement of religious groups in politics and governance issues has provoked complaints that it is contrary to the Constitutional mandate for the separation of Church and State. It has also invited comparisons with the Spanish colonial period when the friar orders were among the country’s rulers. As valuable a principle as that separation is, however, its implementation, say Church partisans, should not include the suppression of their sentiments on who they think can best serve and lead the faithful because it would be a denial of its priesthood’s and the laity’ Constitutional rights as citizens to free expression and free choice.
Most Constitutional experts have argued that only the adoption of a State religion would be in violation of the separation of Church and State principle. But that argument ignores the problematic issue of whether, by endorsing this or that candidate, the leaderships of religious groups in effect make their members’ choices for them.
The phrase “command votes” that has been used to describe the INC’s supposed control over its members’ votes aptly defines its seeming usurpation of every citizen’s right to free choice. In addition, the election of public officials with the help of a particular church does put those officials in its debt, to repay which they could use their office in its behalf.
Although generally perceived to be less political than the INC — it persuades rather than commands — Catholic Church influence in governance has nevertheless been fairly evident in the absence of a divorce law and the suspension of the death penalty, among others. Church influence has also prevented the public exhibition of motion pictures it considers inappropriate and immoral, even as its more ardent believers in government support and introduce bills whose purposes are consistent with its teachings.
It is almost impossible to stop or even limit the influence of religious organizations in politics and government. Catholic Church influence has at times been positive, as it was at EDSA in 1986, when nuns and priests risked their lives in confrontations with heavily armed troops, tanks, and helicopter gunships in behalf of the faithful. And there is as well its pivotal role in the suspension of the death penalty during the Macapagal-Arroyo regime.
The Philippine Church may not have been as vocal in the defense of human rights and in the advocacy of political, economic and social change as its counterparts in Latin America, which opposed the most brutal dictatorships there at the cost of the lives of its nuns and priests. Beatified in 2018, Saint Oscar Romero, a Catholic bishop, was among the latter. He was killed in 1980 while celebrating mass by a military death squad for his denunciation of the then ruling junta of El Salvador.
No such sterling example of martyrdom, it seems, has so far arisen in Catholic Philippines. But although historically part of the power elite, the Catholic Church in these isles has at least been equal to meeting some of the most urgent challenges of the times, despite much of the laity’s Sunday Catholicism and weekday atheism. (The churches are crammed to the rafters every Sunday by worshippers who lie, cheat, steal or murder from Monday to Saturday.) One can only hope that despite this and other constraints, it will do more, given the urgent need for solutions to the worsening problems that have haunted the people for decades.
The English novelist Graham Greene, who was a Catholic, admitted that the Church has committed “great crimes” during its long 2,000-year history. He was thinking of the Inquisition’s persecution of “heretics” and its burning “witches” at the stake in the Middle Ages, and Church collusion with the European powers in the conquest, enslavement, and exploitation of colonized peoples. But he declared in his 1966 novel The Comedians that the Catholic Church has never been guilty of the indifference to human suffering that decades later Pope Francis was to condemn as the worst sin of all.
May 4’s endorsement of specific candidates was in affirmation of Greene’s observation. But it should not, and hopefully will not be, the last.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).