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Bishops as Players

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 02, 2005

In May several individual bishops in the Philippines called for the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Throughout June, the entire Philippine episcopal conference seriously considered making that call their own. During a three-day meeting ending on July 11th, the bishops worked on a statement to that effect. But the hammer never fell. Why not?

Philippine History

The Philippines is 85 percent Catholic, and Philippine Catholicism is not shy about making its politics known. In recent years, led by the late (and in many ways great) Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Philippine hierarchy has stood strongly for the rights of the people against regimes inclined to abuse them. The bishops have urged the people to engage in a Gospel politics of peaceful prayer and solidarity to uphold Christian values and resist oppression.

In American eyes, Philippine politics has often resembled a larger-scale Chicago brawl, except that sometimes the good guys win. Having witnessed years of corruption, fraud and even murder during Ferdinand Marcos’ twenty years in power, Cardinal Sin and his brothers in the episcopate helped form the People Power movement. Marcos asked Sin to side with the government; refusing, the Cardinal begged the President not to use force against People Power demonstrations. Neither man budged, and ultimately People Power pitted hundreds of thousands of kneeling, Rosary-praying Catholics against government tanks and guns in the streets of Manila—toppling the Marcos regime.

Since that time, the bishops have been in the thick of it, sometimes serving as popular champions and often returning from the field as heroes. In some ways they have provided an example for the rest of us. Now once again they are deeply concerned about economic mismanagement, financial corruption and election fraud. The Justice Minister has threatened to bring criminal charges against the bishops for sedition. At least one bishop has replied by reminding the Justice Minister of People Power.

So, again, why haven’t they dropped the hammer on President Arroyo?

The Murk of Politics

Since the fall of Marcos, several regimes have come and gone in the Philippines, none of which has been noted for stability and few of which can claim political rectitude. Immediately following Marcos came Cory Aquino (1986-1992), a remarkable woman whose husband had been murdered for leading the political opposition to Marcos. Aquino initiated a more democratic form of government and managed to get a new constitution adopted, which specified six-year terms for the president. Unfortunately her government was in constant risk of a coup. At the end of her term, she endorsed Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) in the new election. Ramos was a Protestant, which concerned the bishops, but he narrowly won in a seven-way race with a mere 23% of the vote. He did not agree with Catholic sexual ethics (which have a huge impact on the common good), his mandate was questionable, and he was accused of corruption.

In the Philippines, the vice president is voted for separately and so may end up being an opponent of the president. Joseph Estrada (1998-2004) had served as such a vice president under Ramos, and he was elected President next in 1998. Estrada attempted to manipulate and intimidate the press into giving him favorable coverage, and the corruption of his administration was apparently great enough to lead to an impeachment attempt, followed by another People Power revolution in which he was forced to resign. Every Philippine agency and all foreign states promptly recognized Estrada’s vice president as the legitimate head of government. This was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who won election on her own in 2004, and who is now being accused of mismanagement and corruption in her turn.

In other words, things are not quite so clear as in the days of Marcos. One cannot be sure that the ouster of one president will lead to better times, or that a certain degree of corruption (or at least talk of corruption) is worse than a constantly changing regime. Philippine politics has begun to have much more in common with politics in most other times and places: there is a little good, a lot bad, and significant uncertainty about the rest.

Cautious or Correct?

One would have expected the bishops to be cautious and, by their own lights, I suppose they were. When three bishops demanded Arroyo’s resignation in May, the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Fernando Capalla, emphasized that this was not yet an action of the entire conference. But the Philippine bishops have grown accustomed to the heady crossfire of direct political action. Within two months the entire conference was preparing to go on the attack. What deterred them was not caution but something far more important. They were stopped by a consideration of what it means to be a bishop, and they were stopped by Rome.

The agent was Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio in the Philippines. During the conference meeting in the days leading up to the bishops’ statement, Archbishop Franco delivered a clear message from Pope Benedict XVI: the bishops must avoid partisan politics and the Holy Father would be displeased if they were to call for Arroyo’s resignation.

As a direct result of this intervention, the conference took no position on the presidential resignation, instead calling on the government to engage in serious moral introspection with a renewed dedication to the common good. The statement also discussed the crisis of public trust in the Philippines’ democratic processes, a trust which can only be restored by common prayer, reason, and political action in conformity with the will of God.

Principles and Players

For bishops, this is true political correctness. It is the role of the Church hierarchy to speak forcefully about the principles by which political leaders must govern while avoiding whenever possible both political endorsements and direct political involvement. I hasten to note that barring a politician from communion or judging his standing in the Church is not a political action, though it might have political consequences—just as teaching sound moral principles might (and should) have political consequences. But direct political action, such as marshalling votes or publicly pressing particular leaders to resign, is not part of the episcopal job description.

There are several very good reasons for this, the first of which bears particular emphasis. Bishops simply cannot do their jobs effectively if they engage Catholic politicians on their own field. There is certainly no reason bishops may not discuss policy issues with political leaders, presenting such Catholic reflections as they think most valuable for the common good. But politicians (and their supporters) possess not only policies but souls, souls for which bishops must care. That care is jeopardized whenever a bishop engages in direct political action, for this transforms him into either a teammate or an opponent—that is, a player.

As Benedict XVI has made clear in the Philippines, bishops are not called to be players. As soon as a bishop becomes a player, the other players become sheep without a shepherd.

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