Column: The bishops’ next move

Published on January 1, 2008

IT MAY be that the most politically far-reaching event of 2007 was the Catholic bishops’ deep involvement in the Sumilao farmers’ cause. In terms of public rhetoric and private pressure, their stance reminded me of another end-of-year flexing of political muscle: The religious-bloc protests that stopped the House of Representatives’ shameless attempt to convene a constituent assembly, by itself, in December 2006.

But something about the bishops’ support for the Sumilao farmers seems qualitatively different. I am not talking about the unusually high-profile support given by the Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, although he did add ecclesiastical weight to the campaign to open the iron gates of Malacañang.

What I have in mind, what struck me most, was the Church’s organized response to the cause itself: seminarians working with the farmers during their long march “from Mindanao to Malacañang,” priests negotiating with Palace officials (as I see it, this proved crucial after Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita refused to meet with the marchers), bishops sitting down with President Macapagal-Arroyo herself. The response did not only seem the fruit of long reflection but the firstfruits of a renewed engagement in the political.

(Two quick caveats. I must note that it was the marching farmers themselves who bore the burden of the protest action and thus the responsibility for their temporary victory. And by political engagement I mean only the Church’s unapologetic application of pressure on politicians and political institutions.)

When the bishops meet this month, for the first of their semi-annual conferences, they may decide to issue a statement on the Sumilao cause, possibly in the context of the expiration, six months from now, of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. If they do, we can be sure it will again be couched, diplomatically, in the language of moral guidance.

But if I am not mistaken, and if I read Bishop Emeritus Francisco Claver’s revealing Commentary last November on the recent and unusual “show of public discord among Catholic bishops” correctly, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines may commit, formally, to two courses of action: back the Sumilao cause, and place the burden of success squarely on the President.

Of this we are certain: The cause is eminently moral. Landless farmers–our own “anawim”–have been victimized (twice, in 10 years) by a system that raises the poor’s hopes but rewards the cynicism of the privileged. When the rule of law results in patent injustice, victims only have recourse to the moral order.

The cause is also, and to use a criterion for action the bishops themselves have used, incontrovertible. In July 2005, the bishops declined to press for the resignation of President Macapagal-Arroyo, for a specific and controversial reason. They wrote: “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.” In other words, the allegations of election fraud against her needed to be substantiated.

But there is nothing speculative about the sorry plight of the Sumilao farmers. They were victims of a severe miscarriage of justice, a miscarriage all the more serious because it was carried out under cover of the same law that gave the farmers hope.

Lastly, the cause is now the President’s as well. In the language of participation the bishops themselves are familiar with, the President now “owns” the issue. If she had issued her order merely to defuse the tension, to buy herself time, she may find herself facing a flock of angry, unruly bishops.

As I have written before, there is no such thing as a Catholic vote; the bishops certainly do not elect presidents. But the Catholic un-vote may exist. I cannot imagine Edsa I without the CBCP’s famous post-Snap Election pastoral letter. When rebellious Marines called on the bishops to come to their aid in February 2006, during the standoff in Fort Bonifacio, perhaps they had the same thing in mind too.

We will be watching the bishops, waiting for their next move. As spiritual guides, their work is difficult enough. But in the radically political world of Filipino Catholics, it becomes next to impossible. Perhaps they can take their bearings from a fellow bishop (with considerably greater writing gifts).

In “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI pays homage to Saint Augustine as a poet of hope. He quotes Augustine’s description of his daily life as a bishop. “The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved.” This is the same “sermo” where Augustine also famously wrote: “For you I am a Bishop, with you I am a Christian … the former betokens danger, the latter salvation.”

The keen edge of moral danger–I think our bishops, shepherds of restless, confused sheep, know this very well indeed.

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