The decision of some members of the diocese of Bacolod, backed by their bishop, Vicente Navarra, to hang a giant election-related sign outside the San Sebastian Cathedral has again trained the spotlight on the Reproductive Health Law and the political role of the Catholic Church. The sign calls on the faithful to vote for six senatorial candidates and two partylist groups classified as “Team Buhay” and against seven candidates and four partylist groups they dubbed “Team Patay.”
The sign violates many laws, and should be taken down immediately.
It violates the election law, specifically the provision on “lawful election propaganda” in Commission on Elections Resolution No. 9615. “Posters made of cloth, paper, cardboard or any other material, whether framed or posted, [should have] an area not exceeding two feet (2’) by three feet (3’).” The Comelec has served notice to Bishop Navarra that the signs needed to be resized, but a lawyer for the diocese played for time by asking the Comelec whether the sign was in fact election propaganda. This tactic, to borrow a buzzword from the Corona impeachment trial, is mere “palusot.” The same Comelec resolution clearly defines “election campaign” and “partisan political activity” as “an act designed to promote or defeat a particular candidate or candidates to a public office,” such as “publishing or distributing campaign literature or materials designed to support or oppose the election of any candidate.” You do not need to be a lawyer to know that the sign clearly falls under these definitions.
The diocese has since cut the sign in two, separating the Team Buhay part from the Team Patay half—but this is not an act of compliance but, rather, of petulance, or even insolence, since each half is still clearly larger than the maximum allowed by the Comelec. Even if the diocese members responsible for the sign found it in their Christian hearts to abide by the unmistakable letter of the law and replaced it with signs measuring two feet by three, however, should the good bishop allow it? We hope not, because the content of the sign also violates other kinds of law.
It violates the moral law which governs all of us, whether Catholic or not, because it perpetuates a blatant lie, that the Reproductive Health Law promotes abortion. That is simply not true; every provision that could be misinterpreted as encouraging or allowing abortion has been removed from the law; indeed, the law reaffirms that abortion is illegal, and declares it state policy to be open to all methods of family planning that are, among other characteristics, “safe, legal, non-abortifacient.” So the sign reduces the complex debate over the controversial law to whether one agrees with the narrow Catholic view that the new measure promotes a generalized culture of death. The least the good bishop and his flock can do is acknowledge that many Catholic legislators voted for the new law precisely because they saw it as contributing to a culture of life—literally, since it will save many mothers and infants from an avoidable death.
It violates the law of self-preservation, because the diocese defends the posting of the sign as free speech—the very defense that the controversial reproductive-health activist Carlos Celdran invoked in the infamous Manila Cathedral case. While we believe that freedom of speech is a privileged right, the complainants in the “Damaso” case argued that offense to religious feelings trumped that privilege. Since Celdran has appealed his lower-court conviction to the Court of Appeals, he can now point to the Bacolod sign as an argument in his favor. To put it another way: What is to stop a parishioner in Bacolod from suing the administrators of the San Sebastian Cathedral, on the grounds that the sign offended his religious feelings?
It violates the law of equity. The lawyer for the diocese questioned the duty of the Comelec to enforce election laws, by saying it should start with “more glaring violations,” as the Inquirer report phrased it, of the candidates themselves. This betrays both a sense of entitlement, as though the diocese members behind the sign are exempt from the law, as well as a sense that if politics is dirty, the dirt must come from the politicians themselves, and certainly not from pious, church-going people.
What was it the Gospels taught all of us again, about the mote in our brother’s eye?