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The transparent veil

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
Photo credit: CNN Philippines

Once more, the Catholic Mass has been used in the Philippines as a backdrop for an embattled public official to claim the moral high ground. This time it was Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (photo) who’s currently being probed by the House of Representatives Committee on Justice over an impeachment complaint lodged against her.

But while committee members try to establish whether the complaint has legs, Sereno has made an appearance on hallowed ground, This is a well-trodden path for those of the country’s political class who seek to invoke Mother Church – if not as a divine intercessor, at least to present a visual of virtue – as their secular persona takes a pasting on unhallowed ground.

It’s as if the optics of being in a holy place somehow gives irrefutable credence to the person’s righteousness and sanctitude – and thus to the weight of any words uttered by them there. The chosen stage for Sereno’s delivery – “My stand on what I am going through right now is a stand for the people and the Constitution” – was the Church of the Holy Sacrifice firmly set in Liberal Party territory; the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus in Quezon City.

This is the same theatre used by the Liberal Party elite for the 21 September “Mass of Justice”. Taking part in that event were former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, who appointed Sereno to become the country’s top judge; Vice President Leni Robredo; failed Liberal Party presidential candidate in last year’s election, Mar Roxas; LP President, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan; Senate Minority Floor Leader, Frank Drilon; Aquino’s cousin, Senator Bam Aquino; and House Deputy Speakers, Miro Quimbo and Jose Christopher Belmonte.

For that production, the foot of the altar was adorned with photographs of victims of former president Ferdinand E. Marcos’s martial-law years, as well as those of young alleged War on Drugs victims of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte.

This, then, is Church and state in action – proving yet again that the centuries-old coupling between these two powerful institutions is as alive and well in the 21st century Philippines as it was in the 16th when Spanish friars doubled as administrators for the Crown of Spain. So that’s despite Sereno purporting to “stand for the Constitution”, complete with its separation of Church and state provision.

What this really amounts to is the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines providing a playhouse for political scripts that particularly delight it – scripts that support its own politicking. The hard political fact here is that the Church can do business with the Liberal Party; it can’t with Duterte.

No one really doubts that the Church is in the tank for the Liberals; over the past several months its priests and bishops have been on the front line with party members at anti-government protests and demonstrations in one form or another. The pulpit has become an unapologetic soapbox for anti-Duterte rhetoric; Catholic radio stations have upped the decibels in their airwave campaign to denounce the president; pastoral letters have become political-opposition pamphlets.

Bubble-wrapped by congregants comprising friends and supporters, Sereno – a born-again Christian; not a Catholic, who back in 2012 put her appointment down to “God’s Will” – used the setting to protest her innocence and ask, rhetorically: “How will I leave [her position as chief justice] and abort my duty to the nation?” After all, she pointed out to those gathered there, she’d been given the role of highest judge in the land to “ensure justice, watch over the independence of the judiciary, care of the employees of the judiciary, and institute continuous reform at the judiciary”.

But she’d also been humbled by the public support she claims to have received. This is how she put it: “I didn’t expect that Filipinos would share my struggles … that it would be in the hearts of Filipino families” – adding for good measure, “those who stand with the truth should not be oppressed”.

According to Sereno her work is not yet done. The impeachment complaint against her alleges that she’s failed in a number of areas and – more damagingly – that she’s betrayed the public trust.

All that, however, was brushed aside. This was not about the substance of any complaint; this was about presenting an image of rectitude; honesty, decency, probity – and heroism. It was a morality play that drew on the timeless tales of women persecuted by cruel men – a recalling of St Agatha of Sicily or St Lucy of Syracuse, perhaps, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their defiance of brutal emperors in a climate of persecution more than a millennium and a half ago.

This was about martyrdom for a far more noble cause than denying charges at a Congressional hearing. This was about honour and truth and light. And it was about Duterte, a man the Liberal-Left like to depict as a modern-day Caesar – a Diocletian or a Decius.

Among the throng at the Church of the Holy Sacrifice yesterday were members of the #EveryWoman movement – the group whose ranks include actresses and socialites, that came together last year to defend suspected drugs-profiteer, Liberal Party Senator Leila De Lima, over a vulgar online video purporting to show her engaged in a sex act.

Also there was the regularly Mass-going Prayer Battalion of Truth and Justice. On 7 October, this organisation was present at another Mass – that one was being said for Aquino-appointed Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales, whose been accused of “selective justice and partiality” and could be the subject of her very own impeachment complaint. It was billed as a ‘Solidarity Mass’.

Given that line up, those gathered would seem to have more on their minds than the liturgy of the Mass. It’s unlikely they all rolled up to the same Church at the same hour by coincidence. It’s unlikely, too, that they were there yesterday to celebrate the feast of St Andrew the Apostle either. This was a political gathering with a political message dressed to resemble worship.

The Morales Mass – organised by Armino Luistro, Aquino’s education secretary – was held in the car park of the Office of the Ombudsman in Quezon City, Manila. Among the congregation there were members of the Liberal Party-heavy Tindig Pilipinas; other anti-Duterte groups, including Magdalo Party List; former Aquino-appointed head of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, Etta Rosales, and former Aquino Social Welfare secretary, Corazon “Dinky” Soliman who also made it to the Sereno Mass.

In the Philippines, churches – by design – are established locations for political shows. For one thing, they allow the bishops to play a bigger role in the affairs of state – a role they never want to relinquish. It’s all part of that age-old marriage of convenience between the ecclesiastical ruling class and the secular ruling class; a quid pro quo arrangement by which politicians get to use the setting of the Church to put out their message, while the Church promotes itself as a reliable political moderator. A moral force for principled politics.

Back in August, Andre Bautista, the former Aquino-appointed chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) – the country’s elections regulator – found himself under fire after his wife alleged he’d salted away more than PHP1 billion in unexplained wealth, an impeachment case against him had been filed and all six of his Comelec colleagues called for him to resign.

“I’m praying about what is the right course to take for my family and for the institution that we are serving now,” he told members of the press who just happened to be outside Manila Cathedral as he emerged from Mass. “Sometimes, it is not our timing but the timing of the One Above which we are looking for,” he explained.

Before her arrest in February, Leila De Lima regularly availed herself of the Church’s facility to make political appearances and rail against Duterte. She became, and remains, a cause célèbre for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the Church’s ecclesiastical authority.

And, naturally, the press was always on hand to cover her Church events. From kneeling in the CBCP chapel in Intramuros, Manila, to attending protest marches flanked by nuns, to being prayed over by her office staff just prior to her arrest – the press were always in attendance.

But here’s the problem. While the Church encourages the use of the Mass as a vehicle for political statements (at least those aligned with its own political beliefs) much of the public – the audience which the Church and their political allies are trying to influence and persuade – do not.

In fact, far from it. Such conduct repels them. To have the Church – their Church, actually – used as a theatrical prop by government ‘VIPs’ when they get into difficulties, or when they want to present a show of political strength, debases this institution to such a degree that they no longer trust its moral authority.

And in the present context, they see it as little more than a facilitator of political opposition to Duterte’s rule. So, far from reaching the people, the Church has been pushing them away. Its bishops and priests who support the Liberal Party-led resistance and obstruction to Duterte are now regarded as part of the very political elite which they rejected at the ballot box 19 months ago. This blatant subterfuge can never succeed in deceiving the people – they see right through it like a transparent veil.

Thus, while such appearances and performances play well in preaching to the converted, they have the direct opposite effect on those whom the politicos and their priestly cronies seek to convert. The people need the Church; they need the Mass; they need to receive the Holy Eucharist – they don’t need to witness political grandstanding there. And they don’t need priests to tell them how to think. They can do that for themselves. They already have. That’s what they were doing when they elected Duterte to be their nation’s leader.

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