MANILA, Philippines – A topnotch theologian, Pope Benedict XVI drew a clear line between religion and partisan politics, a threshold recently crossed by Bacolod's bishop and priests.
If Benedict knew about it, he would have disapproved of the Diocese of Bacolod's Team Patay (Team Death) smear campaign against senatorial bets who backed the reproductive health (RH) law. Benedict made his stance clear in a speech in 2007: Partisan politics could undermine the Church's credibility.
“If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice, because she would lose her independence and her moral authority, identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions,” the Pope told the bishops of Latin America and the Carribean.
The long-time professor explained: “The Church is the advocate of justice and of the poor, precisely because she does not identify with politicians nor with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences, and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere.”
In an unprecedented move last week, the Diocese of Bacolod engaged in partisan politics, releasing a list of candidates that Catholics should and shouldn't support in the 2013 elections. Bacolod's clerics based their declaration on only one thing: not if the politicians promised to stop corruption or feed the poor, but simply if they supported or junked the RH law. (Read: What the campaign vs Team Patay means.)
Photo by Charlie Saceda
Contradicting Benedict's message, the diocese also identified itself with politicians when it explicitly supported Team Buhay (Team Life) candidates and junked those from Team Patay.
'Close to boundary'
For sociologist Randy David, what the Diocese of Bacolod did “comes close to the boundary, to the edge, of what the Church is, what its mission is in this world.”
In an interview with Rappler, David said the laity should point out problems about this, if needed.
“If the laity itself believes that that's overstepping the boundaries of the Church, then I think the clergy must listen. But if it seems acceptable, then I think a continuous dialogue over this and what conscience demands, should be a good occasion for reflection,” David said.
He added it is the Church's mission “to make its voice heard on almost every human activity,” including politics. Benedict, however, would likely draw the line on certain forms of political involvement that transform it “directly into a political subject.”
“I don't think that he would be very happy to see the clergy running for public office. I don't think that he would feel comfortable about members of the clergy directly lobbying on political issues... Endorsing candidates would mean being identified with particular partisan interests; I would think that Benedict would feel very uncomfortable about that,” David explained. (Watch more in the video below.)
'Trivializes moral authority'
In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, Jesuit priest Fr Joel Tabora, for his part, denounced the Diocese of Bacolod's Team Patay and Team Buhay posters. “Putting posters up about conscience in the context of a particular vote for or against particular people squanders and trivializes the moral authority of the Church,” Tabora wrote. (Read: Team Patay, Team Buhay: Unconscionable.)
He added: “If it is pronounced unconscionable to vote for a candidate because of a contestable 'Catholic Church' position... who will believe the Church when she attempts to bind in conscience to pursue the common good, to overcome debilitating poverty, to protect the environment, to work for a society of true human flourishing?”
Retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said other dioceses may freely follow the lead of the Bacolod diocese. Cruz said each bishop is accountable not to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, but to the Pope, who lives miles away in Rome.
Benedict, however, steps down on Thursday, February 28, and his successor will not likely look into the Bacolod diocese's Team Patay and Team Buhay posters.
For now, if it wanted to, only the Commission on Elections (Comelec) could regulate the diocese's posters. The diocese, however, defies even the Comelec's orders. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.