Filipino people hold the power in maturing democracy
David Montero's article "WHITHER ASIA'S PIONEERS OF PROTEST?" (Christian Science Monitor, April 30)
echoes a recent editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer rebuking Catholic bishops for not following the activist role that the late Jaime Cardinal Sin had played in past Philippine political crises. Appropriately entitled "Checkmated bishops," the editorial chastises the bishops for not making clear "to the populace what should be done," and for refusing to "lead the people." Instead, as Montero's article indicates, the bishops who turned up at President Arroyo's palace in February "came not to protest, but to offer a prayer in support."
In the intrigue-ridden world of Philippine politics, this gesture was interpreted as a "sell-out," implying that the bishops have been "bought." Montero reports that the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, a lottery agency under the office of the president, has donated tens of thousands of dollars worth to the Church's various projects since 2006, something that the bishops have defended as necessary because the Church has been weakened financially. They, however, indicated that they don't speak with "one voice," since one of their colleagues, Archbishop Oscar Cruz, is an outspoken critic of Arroyo.
The "proper" role of the Catholic clergy in politics has opened a contentious debate in Philippine intellectual circles. Randy David, prominent sociologist who writes a regular column for the Inquirer, asserts that his paper's editorial echoes a "popular, if dangerous, view." David says that his own brother, who is an an auxiliary bishop, is more open to the view of the clergy playing an activist political role than he, David, is willing to concede as a "secular democrat." In short, David's pointed question is, "Should bishops lead political actions?"
This raises a moral issue, according to him, and to beg the bishops "to tell us what to do or to lead us in the fight against an abusive regime is to authorize them to substitute their judgment for the public's own evolving opinion." He goes on to say that he is happy today's bishops in the Philippines "no longer treat us like children." The bishops have not taken to the streets as in the days of the Marcos' regime, but have prodded the people to form "circles of discernment" to decide as a community what forms of social action should be undertaken. David concludes, "It is all they should do in a society that aspires to be a democracy," which is not to abdicate their moral duty but to show a "prudent recognition of the limits of their authority."
I couldn't agree more, but this should not be interpreted as defending the Arroyo administration that continues to be wracked by one scandal after another. However reprehensible the current dispensation has become, David is correct that it would be a setback politically for the nation when religious leaders "dictate government policy to those they have helped install to power." There is danger in that.
There is some nostalgia for Cardinal Sin whose repeated "clarion calls" to the faithful in 1986 were instrumental in toppling the Marcos dictatorship that had gone on for far too long. That was a very different time. But today, to wait for a new Cardinal Sin to lead the charge once more in the streets to oust a corrupt regime would be a retrogressive step politically in a country that regards itself as democratic.
Fortunately, the people themselves have decided that the bishops' concept of "circles of discernment" cited by David offers a better option. Filipinos have repeatedly rejected benighted efforts to destabilize the government by disaffected military elements and their cohorts for a regime change, certainly not for love of Arroyo, but for a preference to avoid a political "shortcut" that could prove more disastrous for the entire country.
Belinda A. Aquino is professor and director of Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.