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Billboard squabble

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Bacolod’s Catholic diocese is clashing  with the Commission on Elections over the display of  “Patay/Buhay” tarpaulins on its cathedral. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on March 19 on a petition to scrap the Comelec rules on tarp size, display, etc.

The media dub this the “Tarp War.” It’s about who should win—or be trashed—in the 2013 senatorial elections. That’d hinge on how the candidates voted on the Reproductive Health Law (Republic Act No. 10354).

Every Filipino is free to speak. That includes ministers or priests. Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, however, cannot speak for 71 other dioceses.

Certainly not for the Manila archdiocese led by Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, one of 114 cardinals who’ll vote in the March conclave in Vatican City. Tagle is listed among the papabili by Vatican observers. These are the men among whom one will be elected as the 257th successor to Peter.

“The sufferings of people and the difficult questions they ask are an invitation to be in solidarity with them, not to pretend we have all the solutions,” Tagle told the last Synod. “The Church should contribute in the public square. But we in Asia are particular about the mode…. You may say the right things. But people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution…”

Like Bacolod? Yes, like Bacolod, writes Ateneo de Davao’s Joel Tabora, SJ, in his blog: “Team Patay/Team Buhay—Unconscionable.” He recalls an elderly lady interviewed on TV in front of the cathedral’s tarpaulin. “I’m old enough to decide for myself,” she declared.

“Me, too,” says Father Tabora. Hardliners bluster that the “Catholic vote” will send RH advocates “packing to the eternal consequences of your disobedience.” They lost the battle against the RH bill. Now, they’d wage a war to win the elections? This is “silly in its arrogance… Worse, it is harmful to the Gospel.”

Look at election history, suggests San Carlos Major Seminary’s dean of studies, Fr. Ramon Echica. Catholics have never voted as a bloc. “The implicit premise of hardliners is [that] the single issue facing us is reproductive health.” This is myopic. It whittles Catholic morality into one issue. But RA 10354 is not the sole determinant of one’s Catholicity.

“Hardliners are silent on issues to which Catholic moral principles should be applied,” from poverty alleviation and land reform to peace in Mindanao, Echica notes in his paper, “Catholic Vote, Anyone?”  Indeed, the litmus test is not whether one voted for or against the RH bill, Tabora adds, but this: Did you reach out to the hungry, sick, imprisoned and homeless?

All that sends us hurtling through a time tunnel to Bacolod City in 1981. There, Pope John Paul II spoke to landowners and workers (sacada) of sugarcane plantations.

“It is not admissible to use this gift [of land] in such a manner that the benefits it produces serve only a limited number of people, while the vast majority are excluded from the benefits which the land yields,” John Paul stressed. “…[Heed] the moral imperative of contributing to a decent standard of living and to working conditions which make it possible for either dumaan, sacada or industrial workers … to live a life that is truly human…”

Do Bishop Navarra and coworkers share their crusading zeal for tarpaulins equally for the sacada of 2013? It’d  help clear the air if they show this is the case.

In a plural society like the Philippines, the Church proposes but Congress disposes, Tabora notes. RA 10354 was not written so Catholics will follow the teachings of their Church. It is a law legislated for the common good.

“RA 10354 clearly proscribes abortion. It respects the conscience of Catholic government workers. It undertakes to fund and promote natural family planning, Major changes were introduced because of Catholic influence. It is grossly unjust to assert now that it is unconscionable for Catholics to vote for these legislators.”

After Congress passed the RH bill, a pastoral letter labeled those who voted “nay” as heroes. “Is a politician who plundered the nation’s coffers but who is against use of condoms deserving of our vote?” Echica asks. “Does this mean that Imelda, who has not shown any remorse for the conjugal dictatorship, is a hero?”

Conscience should be the ultimate norm. Threats of a Catholic backlash does not address the conscience of  politicians. Instead, it appeals to political survival, “not to the depth of values that the Church embraces.” The threat has consequences.

“The Bacolod tarps undercut the credibility of the Church as a neutral election watchdog, won by decades of service,” both Tabora and Echica caution. The Bacolod billboard campaigns for or against some candidates. The Church cannot eat her cake and have it, too.

If the Church opts for the role of power broker, it will compromise its prophetic role, fret Echica and Tabora. Can bishops bravely denounce the abuses of officials they helped catapult to power? “When the politically powerful believe they owe their position to the Church and when the hierarchy thinks secular rulers are  indebted to it, the result can be an unholy alliance. That has often proved tragic to the Church.”

“The key player here is the laity,” Tabora adds. After Vatican II, “the paradigm shifted insight into God’s presence in a plural society. Imposition of values by the Church or society  will be resisted. Listening will have to be two-way, and discernment shared.”

So, who is spooked by the Catholic vote, Bacolold style? “I am,” Echica writes. “I am afraid of its impact on the Church whose servant I am.”

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E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com


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