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Reality check: Catholic bishops’ political clout

November 20, 2012
Reality check: Catholic bishops’ political clout thumbnail

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr.

In last Friday’s Philippine Daily Inquirer there was a report which said, “The RH bill is stuck in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, with legislators facing reelection next year worried about a backlash from the influential Catholic Church, which is leading the opposition to the bill.” The article did not name the legislators. It could very well just be the perception of the reporter, as is the perception of many, that some legislators are worried about alienating the Church higher-ups with their pro-RH stand.

I know for a fact that the bishops do not look kindly towards members of Congress who are pushing for the passage of the RH bill into law. A number of them have made known their sentiments towards pro-RH legislators in strong words. I submit though that such sentiments of the bishops would have no adverse effect on the political stock of the legislators.

In 1995 the Church waged a vigorous campaign against the bid for a Senate seat of Juan Flavier, a long-time community physician and ardent promoter of family planning, the term in use at the time. He placed fifth among the winning senatorial candidates, bested only by Nora Aunor clone Gloria Arroyo, and prominent political figures Raul Roco, Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., and Franklin Drilon.

In 1998, the Church conducted an aggressive campaign against presidential candidate Joseph Estrada because he was the personification of the antithesis of the model Catholic family man. Erap, who made no bones about keeping mistresses and siring children with them, scored a resounding victory at the polls, thanks to the votes of those invariably referred to by political pundits as the great unwashed and the squealing masa, the same people who voted Arroyo vice-president that year simply because she looked like the masa’s idol.

That reflects accurately the intellectual capacity of the great majority of the voting population. To them elections are no more than just popularity contests. How else can one explain the election to the Senate of Joseph Estrada in 1987, then the Ramon Revillas, Lito Lapid, Robert Jaworski, and yes, Tito Sotto in succeeding elections. If the concept of public office or national leadership is beyond the voters’ comprehension, the morality issue in reproductive health can only be well outside the narrow range of their mental capacity. The Church leaders and their lay confrères would be unable to influence these voters not to vote for candidates supportive of reproductive health.

Besides, the stark reality is that the Catholic bishops lost during the presidency of Arroyo whatever little political influence they still had at the time. The immense erosion of their influence began in 2005 when they rejected all calls for then President Arroyo to resign in spite of incontrovertible evidence — the Garci tapes — that she tried to manipulate the presidential elections of 2004. One bishop, Ramon Arguelles, defended her continued stay in Malacañang by saying: “Everybody cheats anyway.” On the intercession of Medy Poblador, a Palace underling and a relative of the cardinal, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales helped Balanga Bishop Socrates Villegas whisk a vital witness to the Garci tapes from his safehouse to the bosom of the military.

In 2007, they released a pastoral statement on the May 14 elections of that year couched in subtleties and indirect references. They did condemn the dirty conduct of elections in some provinces” and did protest “against the injustice done to people as their right to choose their leaders are desecrated.” There was no mention though of the massive electoral fraud in Maguindanao. They did not call for any action on the part of the faithful. In sharp contrast, the bishops in 1986 denounced the Snap Election held that year as “unparalleled in the fraudulence of its conduct” and asked every member of the Catholic Church “to come together to discern what appropriate action to take.”

Nary a peep was heard from Bishops Juan de Dios Pueblos and Martin Jumoad about Arroyo’s wanton use of fertilizer funds and PCSO money for her presidential bid in 2004, her open support of the Ampatuans in the elections in Maguindanao in 2007, and her brazen attempt to get the anomalous NBN-ZTE deal approved. Yet, Bishop Pueblos had the gall to ask for the resignation of President Noynoy Aquino and Bishop Jumoad the cheek to chide the President for supposedly doing nothing.

Thanks to PCSO’s Margie Juico, the public got to know why. The PCSO made public a letter Bishop Pueblos wrote then President Arroyo in February 2009. Here are excerpts from that letter: “I will be celebrating my 66th birthday on March 8, 2009… I really need a brand-new car, possibly a 4 x 4, which I can use to reach the far-flung areas of Caraga. I hope you will never fail to give a brand new car which would serve as your birthday gift to me.” He got what he asked for. It had also been revealed that a number of bishops accepted money envelopes from Malacañang functionaries during dinners at the Palace.

Also, the bishops have been duplicitous about the nature of the RH bill, saying categorically that it promotes abortion. In fact the bill affirms that abortion is a crime.

They have also shown poor judgment. At the prayer rally at the UST parade grounds in 2008, in observance of the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of the papal encyclical “Humane Vitae,” speakers were Manny Pacquiao, Lito Atienza, and Eduardo Zialcita.

Who is Manny Pacquiao to be telling people to follow the teachings of God when his marital life has not been in accordance with the 6th commandment of God. Who is Lito Atienza to be speaking on moral issues when his direct involvement in the weird reception given Jun Lozada upon his return from aboard raised questions about his capacity for malevolence. Who is Zialcita to grace a rally around moral issues when he was a beneficiary of ₱5 million of fertilizer funds when his district of Parañaque has not a hectare of farm land.

To the great majority of the voters the stand of candidates for public office on reproductive health is irrelevant as the morality issue involved is beyond their comprehension. To the intelligent Catholic voters, the bishops have lost their credibility as authoritative preachers on matters of morals. It is no wonder that a large number of professors of universities revered as Catholic institutions have gone against the pronouncements of the bishops on reproductive health. Now come the captains of industry, many of whom Catholic universities proudly claim to be their products, endorsing the RH bill.

No, the Catholic bishops no longer wield political influence. No backlash is expected from them. Candidates for public office know that only too well. That is why I say that legislators worrying about a backlash from the bishops must only be the perception of the Inquirer reporter.



  • Anonymous

    The article propagates the myth of the ‘resounding victory’ of Jose Marcelo Ejercito in the presidential election in 1998. While Mr Ejercito, using the false name of ‘Joseph Estrada’, was way ahead of the other nine candidates, he got just under 40% of the vote.

    It is a mystery to me how Mr Ejercito was allowed to run for any office using a false name and how, as a convicted and unrepentant thief, he was allowed to run again for the presidency, still using his false name, while Jose or Maria from the barrio, if there is the slightest discrepancy in their name, will be disqualified from taking a board exam, as I know from experience.

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