At night, the war room was a big pressure cooker, everyone was working so fast.
Is there a Catholic vote? Should there be a Catholic vote?
The first question is whether the Catholic Church can form a voting bloc numerically significant enough to influence the outcome of elections. The second question concerns the wisdom of attempting to create such a bloc.
Those who answer no to the first question cite election history: Former Senator Juan Flavier and former President Joseph Estrada both won with plenty to spare despite the obvious, albeit unofficial, attempts by the Church to discredit them before the Catholic flock.
On the other hand, those who answer yes, counter with a question, “Why be afraid of the Catholic vote if it is non-existent?” I am afraid of the Catholic vote but for reasons different from those who view it as a sword of Damocles ready to fall on those who glory over advocacies perceived to be anti-Catholic.
This brings us to the second question: Should there be a Catholic vote? While I believe that empirical data show that Catholics in our country have never voted as a bloc, still I am theologically opposed to attempt to muster numbers to ensure the victory of candidates chosen from above, the Catholic hierarchy or those who claim to be its supporters.
The statement of CBCP President and Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma is better nuanced: Catholic voters cannot leave their Catholic values behind as they go to the precincts. Yet, he deems it unwise to give specific names of candidates Catholic voters must either reject or vote into office. He leaves it to the conscience of the voter to judge who among the candidates represent best these Catholic values.
But some hardliners among the hierarchy and the faithful are taking a different tack: They pit the so called "Team Buhay" and "Team Patay," specifying the names of the supposed members of each team. What is wrong with this moral division? Let us count the ways.
The implicit premise of hardliners among Catholics is that the single issue facing us is reproductive health. One’s position on reproductive health issue becomes a litmus test for one’s Catholicity. This myopic view reduces Catholic morality to the reproductive health issue. Reproductive health undoubtedly is a crucial issue. But it is not the sole determinant of one’s Catholicity. These hardliners are silent on issues to which Catholic moral principles should also be applied: poverty alleviation, land reform, environmental protection, peace efforts in Mindanao, transparency of public transactions, privatization of public services, honesty, political dynasties, and other issues.
Is a politician who plundered the nation’s coffers but who is against the use of condoms deserving of our vote? Has not plunder also caused the slow death of many poor people? A pastoral letter of the CBCP immediately after the vote in congress in favor of reproductive health labeled those who voted “nay” as heroes. This insulted the moral sensitivity of many discerning people. Does this mean that Imelda who up to now has not shown any remorse of her role in the conjugal dictatorship during martial law a hero?
Some of these rabidly anti-reproductive health advocates are no different from their American counterparts who rightly oppose abortion but who shout with glee when American soldiers kill innocent Iraqis.
The Church as power broker
If indeed there is a Catholic vote and political leaders will owe their positions to the hierarchy, can the Church still exercise its prophetic role over them? Can bishops still bravely denounce the possible abuses of senators they helped catapult to power? Will not the winners who believe they owe the Church now shower her leaders with gifts that ultimately will not serve any evangelical purpose? In this current campaign, there are already examples of clerics becoming extremely accommodating to campaigners, often changing daily mass schedules to accommodate the schedules of favored candidates.
History is replete with sad examples of political leaders who owe their executive positions to the Church. When the politically powerful believe that they owe their position to the Church and when the hierarchy thinks that secular rulers are indeed indebted to it, the result can be an unholy alliance that is often tragic to the Church.
It may seem that we are already far removed from those periods in history when kings and emperors would interfere with the affairs in monasteries and the appointments to ecclesiastical benefices. Yet, even today, it is not inconceivable that political kingpins would whisper to the bishops’ ears on whom to appoint to this or that parish. Presumably, these politicians would want only those priests supportive of them to work in their territorial bailiwicks. When the Church becomes a power broker, the unscrupulous among the powerful can also manipulate the Church.
Conscience as the ultimate norm
The threat of a Catholic backlash does not address the conscience of the politicians. Instead it appeals to the ambitions or the sense of political survival of the legislators. The threat plays around the numbers game and not to the depth of a Catholic’s commitment to the values that the Church embraces.
It has been alleged that beyond the morality of reproductive health, the issue at stake is whether the hierarchy can still control the hearts and minds of churchgoers. While this accusation is unfair, some members of the hierarchy may be giving their accusers stones to throw at them if they wish to dictate the electoral choices of the people.
One deeply meaningful anecdote is “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” which is a story within the novel, "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this anecdote, Jesus returns to earth and faces the dreaded inquisition that burnt heretics in the name of faith. He is asked about that period in his life when he was tempted in the desert after having fasted 40 days. First, the devil tempted him to turn stones to bread. Jesus resisted the temptation for he believed that obedience cannot be brought with bread and he valued more responsible commitment.
It was followed by the temptation to jump from the top of the mountain. But again, Jesus valued the depth of discipleship and not an idol-worship rooted in his followers’ admiration of his miracles. The third temptation was to bow down to Satan and all earthly empires would now belong to Jesus. Consistent with his previous responses, Jesus turned down the lure of power.
But for the inquisitor, the Church would have been better served if Jesus said yes to the devil. In the inquisitor’s mind, only few are capable of the principled commitment that Jesus demanded and the Church would have far fewer numbers if she remained true to Jesus’ ideals.
The anecdote may have been an attack against the hierarchy. But still it can serve the purpose of our examination of conscience: Is the Church after the numbers and should it play the power game or should she instead reach out to one’s conscience, which is the meeting place between God and the individual?
Neutrality of an election watchdog
If the above considerations are too abstract, this last one is the most practical.
The Church is backing election watchdogs like the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting. Its credibility comes from being Church-based and the perception that the same institutional Church is neutral. It is thus imperative that the Church must not have the appearance of eating her cake and having it too: playing neutral while campaigning for or against some candidates.
Who is afraid of the Catholic vote? I am. I am afraid of its impact on the Church whose servant I am. - Rappler.com
Fr Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.