Veterans of the parliament of the streets of the 1980s find the Catholic bishops’ call for lighting candles and ringing of church bells a timid reaction to the Duterte administration’s violent campaign against the drug menace. People will recall that when then President Ferdinand Marcos rigged the 1986 snap election, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a strongly worded pastoral letter to its flock. Parts of the letter said:
“In our considered judgment, the February 1986 polls were unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct. It is our serious moral obligation as a people to correct the evil that has been inflicted on the people. We are not going to effect the change we seek by doing nothing, by sheer apathy. If we did nothing we would be party to our own destruction as a people. We would be jointly guilty with the perpetrators of the wrong we want righted.
“We therefore ask every lay member of the Church, every community of the faithful, to form their judgment about the 1986 polls. And if in faith they see things as we the bishops do, we must come together and discern what appropriate actions to take that will be according to the mind of Christ.”
When allegations of corruption among President Cory Aquino’s relatives and political allies increased, the bishops read an open letter to the faithful on July 11, 1989. They said:
“In the plainest of language, stealing from the public through the misuse of influence or position has become, to our shame as a people, an ordinary fixture of our nation’s public life. Such stealing, in and out of government, is, to be sure, nothing new. This sin is today especially hateful before God because it steals money from the already poor. Under present circumstances, it becomes a sin of the blackest hue, a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. We want to exhort you to condemn this sin. But it is not enough to condemn. We must also act. We, the people, must pass from passive endurance to active abhorrence of the crime.”
Sadly, many of the bishops of the 1980s have passed on and leaders of the CBCP fell off the moral high ground during the presidency of Gloria Arroyo.
When National Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director Samuel Ong announced in July 2005 that he had original audio tapes containing a recording of a conversation between then President Arroyo and Commission on Elections official Virgilio Garcillano that proved she rigged the 2004 presidential election to retain her presidency, civil society groups called for her resignation. Surveys conducted by Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia, and CNN/Time, showed that more than 50 percent of the people wanted her to resign.
But her defiant response was: “I am not resigning. I was duly elected to uphold the Constitution and ensure that the institutions of the nation were strengthened, not weakened.” But it was precisely the legitimacy of her election that was challenged.
After days of deliberations, the Catholic bishops decided not to call on Arroyo to step down over allegations of rigging the elections. The then CBCP president, Archbishop Fernando Capalla, said, “We declare our prayerfully discerned collective decision, that we do not demand her resignation.” Arroyo was so grateful that she gushed, “Once more I pledge you everything within my power to earn your enduring trust and support. Once again, beloved bishops, thank you.”
True, the CBCP had harsh words about the May 14, 2007, elections. Here is what the bishops said: “We condemn the dirty conduct of elections in some provinces. Likewise, we protest against the injustice done to people as their right to choose their leaders is desecrated. We are horrified by the violence inflicted on innocent people during the campaign and election periods.” However, the bishops refrained from calling on the faithful for any action, unlike the 1986 bishops.
Having lost their moral ascendancy to reprove the Duterte administration for its transgressions against the common people’s rights to life and liberty, the present-day bishops can only order the ringing of church bells and ask their faithful to light candles.
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Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has been an observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.
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