Column: A clear conscience is no defense

Published on November 6, 2007

As a political junkie, I enjoyed “Lions for Lambs,” the Tom Cruise starrer that is Robert Redford’s latest and most political movie. It is talky, discursive — and honest about the limitations of words, or of political discourse in general, especially in the age of the younger George Bush, the worst president in US history. (Let me qualify that: The worst two-term president in US history.)

I am reminded of Redford’s first political movie, “The Candidate,” which won an Oscar for best screenplay in 1973. I remember the last scene vividly: After an improbable campaign, Redford’s character has won the Senate race. In the tumult of victory, we see him signaling his campaign manager, and mouthing the words: What do we do now?

In a sense, “Lions for Lambs” (which opens in Manila theaters this Wednesday) is all about the attempt to recover from the trauma of another improbable but all-too-real campaign, another unqualified, undeserving candidate.

* * *

The photograph showing Lakas-CMD party leaders giving the thumbs-up sign purports to show renewed “unity of purpose” forged in a summit in Malacañang last Saturday; instead, it projects an air of vulnerability. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself, in the center of the picture flanked by Speaker Jose De Venecia and ex-President Fidel Ramos, does not seem to be too pleased; we’ve seen her strike a happier pose before. Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita is all the way on the left, almost literally marginalized. (Indeed, he is cropped out in the photo published in the Inquirer.) The lone senator in the gathering is a rookie and a lightweight, Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri; in the photo, he is dead center, but in the political crisis that the President is working mightily to resolve, he is firmly in the periphery.

Not least, Ermita’s rival as the President’s most influential alter ego, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, is not in the picture. Of course, that’s because he is not Lakas-CMD, but Kampi. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it?

* * *

I have long wanted to write something on the political uses of conscience, but the eminent Jesuit John J. Carroll beat me to it. His commentary (in this section) begins by repeating what “politicians and others accused of wrongdoing” often claim: “My conscience is clear.” Then he writes: “Yet a moment of thought exposes its emptiness.”

Really, that is all that needs to be said about politicians accused of wrongdoing who claim a clear conscience as their defense. (The rest of Fr. Carroll’s commentary is a meditation on the role conscience can play in the culture of contraception.) Consider the following paragraphs, then, as a mere footnote to Carroll.

* * *

Many politicians, finding themselves on the wrong side of an accusation, do often claim that their conscience is clear.

Take Joseph Estrada 00 please. (Sorry, could not resist borrowing Henny Youngman’s famous punch line). Ever since the “Juetenggate” scandal erupted in October 2000, midway through his presidency, Estrada has never tired of repeating the claim that, on the matter of receiving alleged protection money, his conscience was clear. When the four plunder charges were filed against him, he made the same claim: His conscience was clear. When he was convicted on two of those counts — after the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan was convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that he was, in fact, Jose Velarde — he said the same thing again: His conscience was clear. On his triumphant return as a free man to San Juan, the city where he started his improbable political career, the claim received a kind of vindication: His conscience was clear.

I do not wish to contest the sincerity of Estrada’s repeated assertion. His conscience may in fact be as clear as ice water; it doesn’t matter. A clear conscience is no defense.

* * *

For the post-Vatican II generation, the clearest (and most evocative) definition of conscience can be found in “Gaudium et Spes.” “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

It is to one’s God, then, that we must make the claim of a clear conscience. (If we can make the claim; Fr. Carroll believes it is all but impossible for a scrupulous Christian.)

The notion that public officials can explain alleged misconduct by claiming a clear conscience cannot justify illegal conduct. Prosecutors and judges cannot penetrate a man’s sanctuary (his “citadel,” in Carroll’s description); they must base their cases and decisions on external evidence. To claim a clear conscience in a public undertaking like a trial, therefore, is to address essentially the wrong audience, using the wrong language.

Besides, there is such a thing as an erroneous judgment of conscience. In Estrada’s case, for example, we are well within our rights to ask whether his conscience was capacious enough, or porous enough, to allow him to sire several families. If his conscience is clear on that point, we can question his protestations of innocence — with a clear conscience.

* * *

Adventures in 3G. For about a week, starting the other Sunday, my phone failed to send or receive text messages. Two telecom service officers told me it was probably because I was using a third-generation phone. This sort of thing happens, the first told me, advising me to change from “dual mode” back to “GSM.” Didn’t work. The second “updated” my “message connectivity,” with better results. If you sent me a text message last week and I did not reply, my apologies. It wasn’t me, it was my connectivity!

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Column: A clear conscience is no defense

  1. I’m 100% convinced that Gloria will do a Marcos and declare martial law to perpetuate herself in power for the following reasons:

    1)George W. Bush will not disagree.Therefore she must do it while he is still in power.(The next American President may be a Democrat and may not tolerate her move if she makes the move after 2008).

    2)The Neocons and ex-generals dominate the cabinet (Gonzalez, Puno, Ermita,Reyes,Mendoza, Ebdane ,etc.)

    3)The “Genuine Opposition” AND Erap have been co-opted.

    4)$100/ barrel cost of oil will have very adverse economic consequences.

    5)She will use the “threat of terrorism” as a pretext.

    6)Cardinals Reyes and Vidal will insist on a “critical collaboration” with the martial law regime.

    7)Gloria’s conscience will be her guide.

    God save our country!

  2. AMAZING COINCIDENCES of Two Presidents!

    * Both are children of former Presidents.

    * Both assumed power in 2001.

    * Both have resorted to lies,deceptions and cover-ups.

    * Both have relied on master spin doctors( Karl Rove,Ronnie Puno)

    * Both have big credibility gaps with their respective people

    * Both have been widely critised in terms personal dishonesty & dishonesty in government.

    * Both have have record low job-approval ratings.

    * Both incumbents will face the harsh judgment of history(worst presidents ever?)

  3. Gej

    I liked the movie too, though I was expecting something else based on the trailer.

    The Lakas CMD photo captured the members for what they have become, caricatures, cartoons of current Philippine politics, complete with mask smiles.

  4. “PAGPAG”:Recycled Garbage Food for the Poor

    I just watched the episode on” Poverty in the Philippines” on ANC’s “Crossroads ” .I got so depressed when I learned about a coping mechanism of our very poor called “pagpag”.In the vernacular,”pagpag” is a verb that describes the act of dusting off dirt.One does this with food, such as a piece of bread, when it accidentally slips your hand and you rescue it from the floor. You can still eat it, just dust it off or “pagpag” it.

    In Payatas, people makes a living by recycling garbage.”Pagpag” is apparently a very common practice there.

    They gather the thrown away plastic, papers, and whatever they can find, including food, that could still be recycled. They sell the papers and plastics to the factories and the recovered food items, usually half-eaten meat, to some stall-owners who cook them again and sell them to the customers. This dish is “pagpag”. The verb has become a noun.

    One angry viewer called the “Crossroads” program to express outrage that the “Pinoy Big Briber” can give away P500,000 packed in brown bags to Governors and Congressmen while the very poor are eating recycled garbage food called “pagpag”.

    Gloria ,your callousness cries out to high heaven, your stinginess to the poor cries out to high heaven!You remember them only during elections.

  5. Willy Magtoto

    John John,

    Not sure if you remember me from Ateneo. Caught your blogsite while visiting Ricky Carandang’s. You pose thought (and soul) provoking polemics. This one is good. I can only say – matters of faith (as the conscience would be the province of) should not dictate matters of law.

    Willy M.

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