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