When the Catholic Church flexes political muscles

MANILA, Philippines – The Catholic Church is clear about its role in politics: bishops and priests have the moral duty to speak, but they should leave partisan politics to the laity.

There have been times in Philippine history, however, when the Catholic hierarchy flexed political muscles because of its moral duty.

The most extreme example of Filipino bishops exerting influence in politics came on February 13, 1986, when they denounced the February 7, 1986, snap presidential elections as "unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct." 

Led by Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) then declared, "According to moral principles, a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis."

"We therefore ask every loyal member of the Church, every community of the faithful, to form their judgment about the February 7 polls. And if in faith they see things as we the bishops do, we must come together and discern what appropriate actions to take that will be according to the mind of Christ," said the CBCP in its 1986 Post-Election Statement.

The days that followed saw the EDSA People Power Revolution, leading to the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos on February 25, 1986. A key figure in the People Power Revolution was Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin.

Those times were extraordinary because the Philippines had a dictator.

Soon after Marcos fled the Philippines, however, Catholic leaders sought "to calibrate Church social and political action to relatively normal times," according to Jesuit priest Father Roberto E. N. Rivera in his article, "A Discerning Community" in the book, Becoming a Church of the Poor. 

Despite his towering influence in Philippine politics, Sin said he did not endorse any candidate in the 1992 presidential elections, the first to be held after Marcos was ousted. Sin was even quoted as advising then-president Corazon Aquino not to endorse any candidate because it is "an insult to the intelligence of Filipinos."

In a comment submitted to the Supreme Court in 2004 for a related case, the camp of the cardinal said, "While it is true in the past elections, the Cardinal gave advice or opinion as to what are the qualities that the candidate should possess, this shouldn't automatically be interpreted as partisan politics."

(But Rivera also wrote, based on a book by fellow Jesuit Antonio Moreno: "In a rare break from incumbent President Corazon Aquino, Sin started what he called a 'whispering campaign' in which he let it be known he was endorsing Senator Ramon Mitra for the presidency." It was Fidel V. Ramos, a Protestant, who won.)

Later, in the 1998 presidential race, the Catholic Church, is said to have informally campaigned against Joseph Estrada, an actor known for drinking, gambling, womanizing. 

At the pulpit, on the eve of the 1998 elections, parishes even read the criteria set by the CBCP for choosing good leaders. "Vote for persons who morally, intellectually, and physically show themselves capable of inspiring the whole nation toward a hopeful future," the CBCP said.

But Estrada still won by a landslide.

Led by Sin, the Catholic Church flexed its muscles again in January 2001 when it gathered its flock for another EDSA uprising. The so-called People Power II ousted Joseph Estrada. who was later convicted of plunder.

After Sin's death

But when Sin died on June 21, 2005, the Philippine Catholic Church lost its single most authoritative voice in politics. (READ: Church after EDSA: Beyond 'Cardinal Sin power')

The CBCP, in place of Sin, became the face of the Catholic Church in political affairs. The CBCP was perceived as weaker than Sin.

In 2005, in the face of calls for then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to resign due to an election scandal, the CBCP refused to call for her resignation. The CBCP then said "no single option regarding President Macapagal Arroyo can claim to be the only one demanded by the Gospel."

(After Arroyo finished her term in 2010, at least 7 Catholic bishops were revealed to have received luxury vehicles from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office when Arroyo was president. Critics said Arroyo’s donations to the Catholic Church partly led to the CBCP's soft stance on the scandals that rocked her.)

In the years that followed, other bishops have waged attempts to campaign for or against candidates.

In 2010, a group of 6 bishops, including then-Lipa archbishop Ramon Arguelles, tried their hand at endorsing a presidential bet – Ang Kapatiran's JC delos Reyes. Ther anointed one ended up as one of the biggest losers in the presidential derby, which elected Benigno Aquino III.

In 2013, the hottest issue between Church and state was the Reproductive Health Law, which was approved under Aquino despite opposition from Catholic bishops.

A group of 6 bishops, led by then-Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, campaigned against "Team Patay" (Team Death) candidates who supported the RH Law. In another sign that there is no Catholic vote in national elections, of 7 "Team Patay" candidates, 4 became senator.

Three years later, ahead of the 2016 elections, at least 3 bishops warned the public against then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte. These bishops, including Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, spoke out against murder, lack of decency, and vulgarity among candidates – in apparent reference to "The Punisher" of Davao City.

Duterte prevailed.

Villegas video

Fast-forward to 2019, the Catholic Church is flexing its muscles again, this time with much more urgency.

Three Catholic priests have been killed, an elderly Australian nun has been deported, and 5 other priests, including two bishops, have received death threats under President Duterte's watch.

On Thursday, March 14, Duterte said priests should be shot – months after calling for the murder of "useless" bishops.

Recently, Villegas released a video criticizing Duterte ahead of the May 13 elections.

The archbishop asked in the viral video, "My dear brothers and sisters, are you going to betray God, are you going to deny your faith, by your vote?" 

With Duterte waging war on the Catholic Church, do the times call for a Catholic vote?

What is the right thing for the Catholic Church to do?

Conscience vote

Despite the Church's influence in politics, the late Jesuit bishop Francisco Claver stressed the importance of educating consciences instead of simply dictating.

Claver talked about this in a 2010 article for the Union of Catholic Asian News, which Rivera quoted in "A Discerning Community."

Months before he died in July 2010, Claver recalled, "In 1986, the bishops judged that the snap elections were fraudulent and condemned it and Marcos' continued rule."

"But we also made sure to call on everyone to discern and judge the polls on their own. We told people that if they agreed with our judgment, then they should pray and act together to correct the wrong," Claver added.

The bishop said: "We must be minfdul of our influence and make sure we do not stifle people's conscience, but that we educate it....For when people start acting in their own way and at their level against the many corrupt practices of Philippine politics, that is when real social change takes place with corresponding change of the values of the people." – Rappler.com