Column: The Pope and the politicians

Published on January 13, 2015.

It is a safe bet that many Filipinos want the upcoming papal visit to be a politician-free zone. Even the politicians themselves are wary, all too aware that just being seen with Pope Francis as he visits the Philippines could be mistaken for that new state of disgrace we can call “epal-ness” or, worse, as an abuse of political privilege. With the exception of the Pope’s courtesy call in Malacañang, there is good reason to keep the apostolic visit free of politics—but not necessarily of politicians.

I would wager that Pope Francis himself, while acutely conscious of the corruption, the venality, the self-seeking and self-perpetuating culture of politics, would welcome politicians of all shades of conviction in his audiences. He has the same high regard for the calling of politics that the pope of his formative years in the priesthood, the intellectual diplomat Paul VI, expressed often and emphatically.

In a characteristically candid interview with veteran Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli in December 2013, he spoke about the relationship between the Church and politics.

“The relationship needs to be parallel and convergent at the same time. Parallel because each of us has his or her own path to take and his or her different tasks. Convergent only in helping others. When relationships converge first, without the people, or without taking the people into account, that is when the bond with political power is formed, leading the Church to rot: business, compromises… The relationship needs to proceed in a parallel way, each with its own method, tasks and vocation, converging only in the common good. Politics is noble; it is one of the highest forms of charity, as Paul VI used to say. We sully it when we mix it with business. The relationship between the Church and political power can also be corrupted if common good is not the only converging point.”

Politics as one of the highest forms of charity. We hardly hear this view expressed these days (not even from the politicians on the Left who might be expected to understand a political career as a matter of personal judgment and compelling necessity). But in truth this is the Catholic view of politics, reflected in the Church’s teaching, repeated in various papal encyclicals, codified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But: “We sully it when we mix it with business.” I suppose the general revulsion at the idea of politicians (the same politicians we have elected to office) sharing the same physical space as the Pope is based on the perception that too many officials have mixed politics with business, or indeed see politics as a kind of family business passed from generation to generation. They have no right to be with the Pope, even if they leave their bodyguards and luxury vehicles behind and come in through the same event entrances as ordinary folk.

This is too sweeping a view, however, and may I also say unchristian. How can we encourage the virtuous and the competent who dare enter the political space, if we demonize everyone who makes it through the un-narrow gate? Besides, the good news of redemption which Pope Francis brings is surely meant for those who need it. In other words, who would benefit the most from an encounter with the Pope, if not those who have fallen short of their noble calling?

So by all means: Let the politicians in. Let them come close to the pope of surprises.

* * *

The Inquirer Conversations with Cardinal Chito Tagle on Jan. 10 and Archbishop Soc Villegas on Jan. 12 were standing-room-only events, for which the real credit must go to the co-organizers: the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and the University of Santo Tomas. But aside from generating news stories, the Conversations also allowed those who took part in it to prepare for the papal visit with a little more depth.

In Saturday’s forum in Letran, for instance, Tagle offered a vigorous defense of the devotion to the Black Nazarene, using Pope Francis’ own writings on popular piety. In the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Pope referenced the 2007 “Aparecida” document (which he had edited when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires); in that now-landmark statement, Church teaching on the so-called spirituality of the people reached a new level of clarity. “Nor is [popular piety] devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning …” Tagle’s defense emphasized this point; for many Filipinos, he said, the faith is not a “notional,” “intellectual” activity, but something grasped, sometimes literally, by hand.

* * *

In yesterday’s dialogue in UST, Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, spent a good part of the forum responding to a particular question raised by columnist Ceres Doyo.

Expressing dissatisfaction with the familiar translation of “compassion” as “malasakit,” Doyo asked Villegas if there was a more accurate, more nuanced way to translate the word. Villegas’ immediate reply: “awa ng Diyos.” It was a resonant answer: quite literally, because it was met by an appreciative murmur from the audience, and also figuratively, because as he carefully explained his answer (like Tagle, he spoke in layers) many heard the ring of truth itself.

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