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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 6, 2006
Philippines: Pray, put politics aside
By Fabio Scarpello

MANILA - The newly elected president of the highly influential Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) wants to steer the organization back to its pastoral mission and away from politics. His wish may be difficult to attain in the Philippine political arena, where the Church has always had a central, if controversial, role.

The CBCP should concentrate more on its religious duties and put politics aside, said Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, the new leader of the 119-member organization.

"The working heart of the CBCP consists of [its episcopal] commissions. So all commissions should focus on the nine

pastoral priorities," he said in a speech after succeeding Archbishop Fernando Capalla last month.

The nine pastoral priorities are: integral faith formation, empowerment of the laity toward social transformation, active presence and participation of the poor in the Church, the family as focal point of evangelization, building and strengthening of participatory communities that make up the parish as a community of communities, integral renewal of the clergy, journeying with youth, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and animation and formation for mission ad gentes (the Second Vatican Council's decree on the missionary activity of the Church).

Lagdameo's aim is rather at odds with reality in a country where the Catholic Church is the most influential institution reaching into every facet of society, including politics.

Catholicism arrived in the Philippines with the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and soon grew to become the country's main religion, sweeping aside local beliefs and Islam. Today, with 67% of its 84 million inhabitants following Catholicism, the Philippines is the third-largest Roman Catholic country after Brazil and Mexico and is also the only Catholic-dominated Asian country besides tiny East Timor.

On the archipelago, the zeal of the flock has placed a heavy burden on the clergy's shoulders and the Church has often acted as a political as well as moral guide for the people. Yet its role has been somehow divisive.

"Filipinos have no other societal institution to turn to when it comes to seeking a moral rudder, and all in all, I think it is healthy that the Roman Catholic Church has a major preeminence in the Philippine political life," Manila-based political analyst Jose Bayani Baylon said.

On the other hand, according to Manuel Quezon III - political analyst and nephew of past president Manuel Luis Quezon y Molina - the Church has been mostly a reactionary force, historically mistrusted by the people.

"The role attributed to the Church in the country's history is overstated," he said. "The Catholic Church became a supporter of democracy during martial law, most importantly in 1986 and then in 2001."

Quezon's comments refer to the crucial role played by the Catholic Church in "people power" revolutions that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and forced the overthrow of president Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Then, under the leadership of cardinal Jaime Sin, who died last year, priests and nuns led the people in the streets, forcing political changes virtually unthinkable in most other countries.

If the people-power movements were the defining moments of the Church's grip on the country's politics, its central role was highlighted again at the peak of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's crisis last summer.

Arroyo, plagued by accusations of vote-rigging, survived three impeachment attempts brought against her in parliament by the opposition in July. Analysts agree that the Church helped her stay in power.

"During the vote to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a congressman accepted that last-minute calls by Erano Manalo, head of the Iglesia ni Cristo, kept him from signing the impeachment complaint," Baylon said.

The Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), or Church of Christ, is a religious group that declared its support for Arroyo during the last week of the 2004 election campaign, which she won by a contested 1 million votes.

Besides the INC, another religious group that is involved in politics is the Catholic movement El Shaddai. "They can also deliver millions of votes," said Quezon.

Further, the role of the Church was instrumental in the failure of the opposition's attempt to take the battle from the courtroom to the streets.

In a July 10 pastoral statement, the CBCP declined to support the mounting calls for the resignation of Arroyo. "In a spirit of humility and truth, we declare our prayerfully discerned collective decision that we do not demand her resignation," then-CBCP president Capalla read from the three-page statement.

The statement meant that most people stayed home and the protests never mounted to anything comparable to past people-power movements.

However, Lagdameo has now taken over and stated his intention to return to basics, though he is expected to state his position on pressing political issues when the bishops convene some time this month.

Expectations are mixed.

"The Church is divided," Quezon said. "There are bishops who are conservative, others liberal. The clergy is divided. The faithful are confused. But with the new leaders we may see a return to the old pro-democracy Church of 1986."

Baylon hoped for a continuation of the status quo that sees the Church walking a fine line between being apolitical and becoming politically active.

"I believe the religious orders should maintain their activism in relation to moral issues, which, given the weakness of political values and principles in the Philippines political system, means bordering on political involvement," he said. "However, at the stage the Philippines is in, the abdication by church leaders would have even worse consequences."

Meanwhile, the fervor of the Filipinos' faith and the size of the flock have earned the country some special attention from the Vatican. The late pope John Paul II visited Manila twice. During his second visit, in 1995, an estimated 4 million to 5 million Filipinos came to greet him. He had planned a third visit before his health deteriorated.

The ascendancy in April of the conservative cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy as Benedict XVI was greeted with delight in the Philippines. "We share the jubilation over the election of cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope," Arroyo, a passionate Catholic, said then in a statement.

Pope Benedict XVI has maintained the Vatican's special attention for the Philippines. This year, for the first time the Philippine native language was added to the 33 uttered by the pope during his Christmas greetings.

"The Tagalog version of the Christmas greeting was added by Pope Benedict XVI himself because he recognizes the deep Catholic faith of the Filipinos," said Archbishop John Patrick Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications of the Roman Curia.

In November, Jesus Marquina Marano became the first Filipino and Asian to be named a parish priest in the Diocese of Rome. As the new head of Nostra Signora di Fatima parish, the 40-year-old will work directly under Pope Benedict XVI, who is also Bishop of Rome.

(Inter Press Service)

An aging general's warning bell
(Dec 21, '05)

Arroyo claims hollow victory
(Sep 7, '05)

Arroyo hanged by history (Jul 16, '05)

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