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Cardinal rule or cardinal error?

pastoral letter urging the Filipino people to support the Church’s lead on a number of issues including martial law, federalism, human rights, capital punishment and contraception

The Philippines’ powerful bishops are re-entering the political arena with what amounts to a manifesto outlining their direction for the country – specifically, in respect of any amendments to the 1987 Constitution; legislation on which they had advised Corazon Aquino, the president they helped install following the ousting, a year earlier, of strongman leader Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos’s overthrow came from a People Power revolt that was backed by the Church hierarchy and effected by means of large street demonstrations, often orchestrated by the bishops and their priesthood. Now, the top brass of the Church – among them some members of the old guard who were active in the removal of Marcos – are seeking to re-energise people power in an effort to influence any constitutional changes which the present administration of President Rodrigo Duterte is seeking to make.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the episcopal assembly of the country’s Roman Catholic Church – a body comprising 131 active and honorary bishops – has laid out its position in a pastoral letter urging the Filipino people to support the Church’s lead on a number of issues including martial law, federalism, human rights, capital punishment and contraception.

With the possible exception of federalism, the Church’s view on these matters is uncompromising. This then is not so much about reaching a consensus with the people on, for example, capital punishment or contraception; this is about dominating the debate to ensure the Church’s will is upheld.

The letter – the result of a three-day plenary assembly over the weekend – was issued by CBCP president and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop, Socrates Villegas, a forthright critic of Duterte’s policies. It pointed out that it was “not to endorse or disapprove” of Duterte’s plans to overhaul the Constitution, “but to offer pastoral guidance”. Given the topics it seeks to advise on, however, it would seem fairly obvious that the bishops’ pastoral guidance will be pointing in the complete opposite direction to the way Duterte wants to go.

The message to the people was this: “We must be vigilant and watch over, and even suggest ideas and formulations that enter into the Constitution. We have to make sure that the resulting document embodies ‘our rights, our ideals, our aspirations, and our dreams’”.

Despite the use of the word “We” in that statement, the Church will have difficulty in convincing the wider population to follow any advice which seeks to hamper the president’s desire for constitutional change. (In December, Duterte signed an executive order establishing a 25-member consultative body to study possible amendments to the 1987 Constitution). And so, by invoking the notion of ‘people power’ (though it never stated it in so many words), the bishops are making their own position very tenuous – and treacherous. With that seemingly in mind, here’s how the they tried to couch their appeal.

“Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them … public office is a public trust. Let us not allow any public official to act as if he is the master of the people, for a person is elected or appointed to public office to be a servant of the people”. We’ll leave aside the glaring irony here of the unelected churchmen’s involvement in matters of state.

Those remarks from the CBCP, however, hark back 31 years to Edsa, the Manila epicenter of the People Power Revolution. But these are very different times. Of course the bishops know that – that’s why they’ve decided to strike a non-combative tone. The anti-Marcos movement was already established when the Church came to throw its full weight behind it. Given the public outpouring of anti-Marcos sentiment at that time, all they had to do was harness it. They didn’t need to bring the people to their side, to win them over, as they do now.

This, then, amounts to a very tricky gamble by the Church establishment; for if their advice –‘guidance’ – is rejected by the flock, it could invite a further blow to its authority. The might of the mitre could be further diminished. All this will have been discussed, and at length. But those attending the 114th Plenary Assembly at the Pius XII Catholic Center in Paco, Manila, obviously decided that the gamble is worthwhile.

The last time the bishops played the ‘people card’, however, they came unstuck. That was under the previous administration; President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s presidency. The issue then was the passage into law of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RH) Act – a piece of legislation for which the bishops had threatened Aquino with excommunication from the Church. The Act – which among other provisions guaranteed universal access to contraceptives, fertility control and sex education – was passed and the CBCP was left licking its wounds.

The people who had been grateful for the Church’s support in removing Marcos had turned against it and supported Aquino. In their RH Act fight the bishops had chosen to ignore a wealth of polling evidence that showed the general population was behind the law’s passage. It was a body blow to the Church and created deep divisions among the congregation.

And so the letter – spread across three pages – continued: “We urge you to get involved in the process of amending the Constitution so that all its provisions will be consistent with the Gospel, and the gains of the 1987 Constitution will be preserved and enhanced, instead of being removed”.

This, though, is a much stickier wicket and a repeat of its failure to halt the RH Act could be very damaging. Not only will the Church be unable to exert influence on the government without the backing of the flock, the flock itself will look unkindly on the Church for attempting to derail reforms which Duterte – a leader whom they love and trust – is telling them are good for the nation.

How long the bishops, and the Church groups which they control, will be able to maintain a non-aggressive approach remains to be seen. In our view it won’t be long.

The bishops’ guidance – which will be expanded on via the pulpit, through the reach of its parishes to grassroots organisations and by standing with Duterte’s opponents – is likely to become more adversarial the closer it gets to the establishment of a Constitutional Assembly, to be convened to debate amendments to the charter. Signature campaigns and public demonstrations will gain momentum to assist the bishops’ guidance. Congressmen will be lobbied and pressured by Church groups; the media will be co-opted to the Church cause.

On the surface, the Church will appear to take a conciliatory role for as long as it can – guide not lead – but the point will come when it will have left itself no other option but to square up to Duterte. This may be a staggered approach. On the issue of martial law, for example, it may be on safer ground with the population and be more demanding; on the issue of capital punishment, for which there’s tremendous public support, it will need to tread lightly – though the bishops’ position on that, which it reiterated in the letter, is clear. They want it banned for all time.

Duterte said he doesn’t need the Church – and the fact is he doesn’t. He refers to the May 2016 elections that swept him to power in a landslide victory as a “public referendum” between him and the bishops. In the seven months since then he’s maintained an approval rating with his people of around 82%.

This is a very different opponent to the ailing and unpopular Marcos. This is a man at the top of his game – a man with a very clear vision for the Philippines’ future. Duterte is a bare-knuckle street fighter and will be unfazed by the pulpit manner of his challenger. And right now, this is looking like a prize fight of unmatched weights and for the bishops the canvas is beckoning.

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