For declaring his intention to push for “responsible parenthood” even at the expense of excommunication, President Benigno S. Aquino III got a most serious censure from the Archbishop Emeritus of Lingayen and Dagupan, Oscar Cruz. “He’s crossing over thin ice. He has a sense of omnipotence, arrogance,” the prelate said.
Perhaps the irony of his statement escaped him, for it is in fact the Philippine Catholic Church’s series of recent public actions that has a “sense of arrogance.”
Take for example the calls made by the country’s Catholic Bishops Conference (CBCP) on McDonald’s to take out its TV commercial that linked French fries with puppy love. When the image-conscious McDonald’s acquiesced, Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the CBCP, rubbed it in: “I do hope it doesn’t reach this point again. It would have been better if they had been sensitive to our culture, and respectful of our faith.” Also, in his homily during a noon Mass in Baguio Cathedral, Fr. Jose Vernon Ilano turned away pro-RH Bill churchgoers. “What is going to church for if you’re pro-RH bill?” he asked.
Indeed, Archbishop Cruz himself, in an appearance on a local morning show, gently yet sternly warned the President of the Philippines against fighting the Roman Catholic Church. “It’s been around for 2,000 years, you know,” he said, rather smugly.
But was that a credible warning or a mere bluff?
If we are to study our history, it would be easy to see that the Church is not as formidable a political opponent as Cruz and others want us to believe. There had been three situations where the State and the Church had a major collision, and in all those instances the State prevailed.
In 1938, Freemason-turned-Catholic President Manuel L. Quezon vetoed a National Assembly legislation, lobbied hard for by the Church, that attempted to require religious instruction in public schools. The bill was clearly in violation of the secular spirit of the constitutional separation of Church and State. In response to the veto, Catholic bishops came up with a strongly-worded pastoral statement. They called on “our leaders” to adapt “the Constitution to the will of the people, and not the will of the people to the Constitution,” arrogantly implying that teaching catechism in public schools was what the people wanted.
Yet amidst attacks from pulpits across the country and from various Catholic organizations and publications, Quezon retorted: “If I were inclined to interfere in the affairs of the church, as the Catholic bishops are attempting to do with the affairs of the state, I would tell the Archbishop and the bishops… that it is their lack of Sunday schools and catechists to teach the Catholic religion that is mainly responsible for the deplorable ignorance of their own religion that is found amongst the Catholic youth.” The religious instruction bill was never passed. Quezon, as he always had, prevailed. It was to be the first round of Church-State showdown and the score cards showed one-zero in favor of the State.
Round Two occurred in 1956, when the Church forcefully opposed the Rizal Bill. Authored by nationalist Senator Claro M. Recto and sponsored by war-time president-turned-senator Jose P. Laurel, the bill aimed to require all students across the archipelago to read the two novels of the national hero. The idea was to imbibe nationalism among the youth, but the Church said the novels were too anti-clerical they could shake the foundations of a Catholic’s faith.
There were vigorous debates about this on the floor of Congress. Senator Francisco Rodrigo, who nicknamed himself ‘Soc’ as in ‘Soldier of Christ’, even went to the extent of accusing the proponents of the bill of, one one hand, trying to undermine the Catholic political bloc and, on the other, of trying to put President Ramon Magsaysay on a difficult spot; accusations that are founded on an extraordinary stretch of logic, to say the least. If Magsaysay signed the bill, claimed Rodrigo, he would antagonize the big Catholic voting sector. The Catholic prelates even threatened to close down their schools, a bluff to which Recto responded by saying he would push for the nationalization of Catholic schools if they did.
The best the Church could get in this political battle was a tokenistic amendment, made by Laurel, to allow students to apply for exemption from the Rizal course on religious grounds; and not a even single student has ever applied for such exemption since then, according to historian Ambeth Ocampo. The bill was eventually passed and Magsaysay signed it into law in 1956, sans any political antagonism from the majority of Catholics. The scorecards read two-zero for the State.
Round Three was to be the spirited campaign by reform-minded President Fidel V. Ramos, with his energetic Secretary of Health Dr. Juan Flavier, to promote family planning, the fundamental essence of the present RH Bill, as part of his Philippines 2000 vision. The formidable Jaime Cardinal Sin, whom political theorist Samuel Huntington once described as the most important—perhaps a euphemism for meddlesome—prelate in any country in the world since the Renaissance, opposed this very vigorously, even to the extent of trying, in vain, to summon the People Power genie; but to no avail. To add insult to the injury, Flavier landed second in the subsequent senatorial election, an incredible feat for a non-politician. Three-zero; tough luck for the Church.
Of course, there are also instances where Church influence could be said to have prevailed. No divorce law, for instance, has ever been passed in the Philippines, making it one of only three anti-divorce states, the others being Malta (but this might change soon, as that country is already debating a divorce bill) and Vatican City. Also, the Church had, presumably, influenced hated Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to call on Congress to abolish capital punishment during her tenure. But these are mere exceptions that can be explained by lack of political will or political expediency on the politicians’ part.
Talks of divorce bills never prospered because none of its congressional proponents ever took it seriously. Arroyo, who except for a very brief period had always been an anti-death penalty advocate since her Senate years, arguably needed the tactical cooperation of Catholic bishops as she defended herself from all flanks during much of her illegitimate term. For some reasons, there is widespread belief among many political actors that the Catholic bishops command a substantial political constituency, probably because of Cardinal Sin’s important role in the 1986 Edsa Revolution. But that was not a Catholic revolution; it was a people’s one. The people heeded Sin’s call not because he was Cardinal but because they wanted to get rid of the dictator.
An American expert on Philippine politics, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, once noted that, in the post-Edsa years, every politician who dares raise the issue of birth control gets summoned to Villa San Miguel to get a lecture, and an implied warning, from the powerful Cardinal-Archbishop of Manila. But we can fairly say that those who succumbed to the pressure—and they all, except Ramos and Flavier, did— just didn’t have enough political will to stand up to the Cardinal, probably because they thought it would have been politically suicidal to have done so. Which is just not true.
With the right political will, it has always been, and would always be, possible, if not easy, to win on a political issue against the Church. Quezon, Laurel and Recto, Ramos and Flavier all did. They stood up to the Church and never had to suffer politically for it; indeed, Flavier even became a topnotcher senator partly because of it. This is because, while eighty-five percent of Filipinos are on paper loyal to the Church, their loyalty is generally pliable at best. The Church’s authority on Catholics does not cover the political realm. Look at the surveys. Ask an ordinary Catholic.
In fact, the Church has more to lose if it insists on going all-out against the RH Bill. Already, some people are turned off by the manner, indeed the arrogance, with which the Church is expressing its opposition to the measure. In a well-written post, for instance, blogger Marck Ronald Rimorim reminds Fr. Ilano, who turned away pro-RH Bill churchgoers in Baguio, that Jesus Christ never turned away even tax-collectors and prostitutes.
Senator Joker Arroyo correctly stated that should the Church go all-out against reproductive health, “it will just show how weak their [sic] hold is on their flock.” Sociologist Randy David presents a compelling analysis of this reality by arguing that modernity dictates that social institutions focus solely on their domains and refrain from encroaching on another social institution’s realm; and that to go against these modern rules would only create problems for that social institution. In To God’s What Is God’s, David wrote: “When the clergy, for instance, begin to directly assume key roles in various worldly function systems (like politics), they risk undermining their authority as moral shepherds. Their own flock starts to question their wisdom.”
Interestingly, even Pope Benedict XVI himself agrees with this view. In an address to a Catholic Bishop’s Conference in Latin America, he said: “The political task is not the immediate competence of the Church. Respect for healthy secularity, including the pluralism of political opinions, is essential in the authentic Christian tradition. If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice because she would lose her independence and her moral authority.”
He could have been addressing his Filipino bishops.
It is obvious that President Aquino, if he really is serious about it, would win this battle. The Church should consider shifting the battle to another front. Instead of opposing a legislation that would give the poor the choice to avail of contraceptives, men of the cloth should instead encourage the poor not to avail of contraceptives even if they have the choice to do so.
But of course, that would prove to be even more challenging.