Now that the bishops have spoken, it is everyone else’s turn. At least that is how it seemed to me, listening to the various call-in or man-on-the-street-interview-driven radio shows.
The professionals have weighed in too.
One recurring theme, however, has struck me as particularly erroneous: the notion that the bishops were following the lead of the new Pope to leave politics to the politicians.
In the first place, the leaders of the Catholic church in the modern era have always spoken to the moral dimension of the political realm, never about politics directly. (It is a precept that allows churchmen to use a rhetorical strategy that discomfits politicians on the wrong end of the morality stick.) This is basic theology, and has nothing to do with any "new" church line imposed by Benedict XVI.
In the second place, does anyone really believe that, if the evidence of election fraud was incontrovertible (to appropriate the word the bishops did not use), the CBCP would not have condemned the President and pronounced her government immoral?
That is exactly what the CBCP did in February 1986, in its famous Post-Election Statement. (I remember hearing it read aloud by former Ateneo de Manila president Father Jose Cruz, in an open field inside the campus, on the day it was released, a week after the Snap Elections.) But note that that stirring document started by detailing the evidence of election fraud. "In our considered judgment, the polls were unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct," the bishops began, and listed a four-part bill of particulars.
And then the unforgettable line, which was greeted with a thrilling roar of approval from the crowd gathered on the field: "According to moral principles, a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis."
The lack of similar categorical language in today’s statement should be instructive. The evidence against President Arroyo, the bishops tell us, still needs to be weighed. Will they "demand" her resignation if (or when, in the eyes of many) the Truth Commission or some such fact-finding initiative determines that she did in fact commit election fraud?
I have absolutely no doubt.
As I have written earlier, the fact that the deliberations took a long time was not a sign of a deeply divided conference. On the contrary, the framework for addressing the present crisis was already in place; the devil (so to speak, and with apologies to the good bishops) was in the details. (There is also Archbishop Legaspi’s straightforward denial.)
It was always about nuance.
The key passage in today’s statement, in my view, is the prefatory sentence in paragraph No. 7 (about midway through the document): "In the welter of conflicting opinions and positions our role is not to point out a specific political option or a package of options as the Gospel choice, especially so when such an option might be grounded merely on a speculative and highly controvertible basis." (Emphasis in the original.)
In other words: We need more information, we need more solid ground, we need to find out the actual truth, not the merely alleged or the already perceived. (That there may be no difference between the three makes for irony so rich even my beloved Jesuits would approve.)
My point: I suspect that this one word in italics (to give only one possible instance of nuance-setting) was the subject of prolonged discussion.
In the end, the bishops based their statement on what they knew. That didn’t make them fence-sitters, or power brokers who decided to play it safe. That only proved that as moral leaders, they knew their actual limits.
(Postscript: It is interesting to trace the trajectory of news reports about the CBCP stand in the last 36 hours or so, from "expected to join the chorus of resignation" to "bishops seen reluctant to call for resignation" to, finally, an exhausted, don’t-ask-us-to-hazard-another-guess "CBCP stand awaited.")