A test of Church clout in political intervention

/ 05:00 AM January 26, 2015

In the aftermath of Pope Francis’ visit, the Aquino administration has been twisting in the backlash of the revitalized influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines on public policy.

From most indications, the Church has received an enormous windfall from the papal visit in enhancing its political role as the counterfoil to the secular Philippine State ruling a country with a predominantly Catholic population in such issues as corruption in governance, reducing poverty, and curbing the population explosion now standing at 100 million people.


Viewed from a superficial perspective, the administration’s handling of the pastoral visit appears to be a huge success—in terms of security and crowd control. Thanks to the self-discipline of the Filipino people who massed in the streets to welcome the Pope, no untoward incident took place to threaten his safety.

It is irrelevant and petty at this stage to raise questions whether 5 million or 6 million greeted the Pope along the papal routes in Metro Manila. It was clear from TV footage that Francis received the biggest crowd reception accorded to all papal visits during the past two decades.


The security was an unprecedented show of force—25,000 policemen and 15,000 soldiers formed a wall of uniformed men on both sides of the routes, blocking the access of the Pope to the poor and children, whom he wanted to bless and touch and to reach out to—the main purpose of his visit—a sight that might have made the papal entourage wonder whether they were visiting a police state.

The Pope didn’t visit to bless and touch security forces of the state. (They are meant to protect state functionaries; the Popes have only the Swiss Guard to protect them.)

The spontaneity and fervor showed by the Filipino people to the Pope, who declined to use armored vehicles, moved the Vatican to describe the outpouring of love for Francis, as the “greatest home court for any Pontiff,” saying that he left behind euphoric Catholics reenergized in their faith.

The visit highlighted the contrast between the charismatic aura of the Filipinos’ foremost spiritual leader and the blandness and apparently uncaring demeanor of their secular leaders.

The euphoric atmosphere in the streets—the palpable chemistry between the Pope and the Church’s constituency—masked the underlying tensions between the state and church, the two most influential and social institutions that have defined the shape of their relationship since the Spanish conquest in 1521.

The secular Constitution of the Philippine Republic mandates the separation between the Church and the State, and these underlying tensions flared up during Francis’ visit.

On the first day of the Pope’s visit, in his courtesy call to President Aquino, who welcomed him at Malacañang, their first encounter was marked by barbed exchanges.


In his address before Mr. Aquino, the diplomatic corps and government officials at the Palace on Jan. 16, Francis, after thanking the President for his invitation to visit the Philippines, underlined the point that his trip was “above all pastoral.”

Honesty, integrity

He said: “It comes as the Church in this country is preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the first proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on these shores. The Christian message has had an immediate influence on Filipino culture. It is my hope that this important anniversary will point to its continuing fruitfulness and its potential to inspire a society of goodness, dignity and aspirations of the Filipino people…

“The bishops of the Philippines have asked that this year be set aside as the ‘Year of the Poor.’ I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community.

“As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, as more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment for the common good. In this way, they will help preserve the rich human resources and natural resources with which God has blessed this country. Thus will they be able to marshal the moral resources needed to face the demands of the present, and to pass on to coming generations a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace.

“Essential to the attainment of these national goals is the moral imperative of ensuring social justice and respect for human dignity. The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voices of the poor. It bids us to break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glaring, scandalous, social inequalities. Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart.”

Aquino broadside

In response to the Pope’s challenge, Mr. Aquino fired a broadside at members of the local clergy, who had opposed the reproductive health (RH) bill backed and pushed by the administration.

He said: “There was a true test of faith when many members of the Church, once advocates for the poor, the marginalized and the helpless, suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses, which we are trying to rectify to this very day. In contrast to their previous silence, some members of the clergy now seem to think that the way to be true to the faith means finding something to criticize, even to the extent that one prelate admonished me to do something about my hair, as if it were a mortal sin.”

In his prepared speech, which he didn’t deliver at Palo, Leyte, the Pope urged fair treatment especially of the poor. “Our treatment of the poor is the criterion on which each of us will be judged,” he said.

How the new Church apostolate on behalf of the poor translates into votes for the Aquino administration or its surrogates in the 2016 elections or continuity of its policies on population control, opposed by the Catholic hierarchy, is an important issue involving the Church’s political influence.

The papal visit has laid the grounds for the public debate on the RH bill. The key question is: Has the papal visit enhanced the Church clout in its interventions in public affairs?

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TAGS: Aquino, Aquino administration, Catholic Church, Papal visit, political intervention, Pope Francis, state
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