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MANILA, Philippines – The 2013 midterm polls will finally put to a test the supposed Catholic vote in national posts. The Diocese of Bacolod, which has a long history of activism and socio-political involvement, has started the ball rolling.
On Thursday, February 21, it issued a statement, beseeching Negrense Catholics to vote against 7 senatorial candidates that it identified to be “anti-life.” These aspirants, in their capacity as senators and congressmen, voted to pass the reprodutive health (RH) bill last December. They are the “Team Patay.”
Conversely, the diocese endorsed the candidacies of 6 senatorial bets they tagged as “pro-life.” They are the “Team Buhay.”
The labeling comes in the aftermath of the divisive RH bill debates, where the Church flexed its muscles in the local level to defeat the measure.
The Church lost this battle, but apparently not the entire war.
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” said retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz when told about the unprecedented move of the Diocese of Bacolod. “The bishops are coming out of their shell because we have an amoral President.”
For the first time, a diocese came up with a list of candidates that Catholics should repudiate in an election. At the same time, it identified candidates whose names should be shaded in the ballot.
The Diocese of Bacolod broke a tradition that the Philippine Catholic Church has held even in the most politically challenging times of the nation’s history.
Despite the general distrust and restiveness during the Marcos regime, the Church as a whole refrained from endorsing the widowed Corazon Aquino over the dictator. The CBCP only issued guidelines to help the voters discern who they should vote for.
Sure, the bishops in a pastoral letter declared that Marcos had lost the moral authority to govern after massive cheating in the 1986 snap elections was exposed. But that was after the elections.
Even the irrepressible Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin, the country’s most politically-involved prelate, stopped short of naming a particular candidate—national or local—at the peak of his clout and influence. He dropped hints about his favored candidates, or who should not be voted for, but he followed the strict tradition of not giving names.
A break from tradition
Contrary to general belief, however, Cruz says the Church’s practice of keeping a semblance of neutrality and impartiality as far as personalities are concerned was not imposed by the Vatican.
What is specifically banned by Rome is the active participation of the clergy in politics—that is, being candidates themselves or holding public office.
Still, Cruz says the bishops find it prudent to stay away from overt partisan politics, especially during elections. He says favoring one candidate over another could only result in division, as most of the candidates are Catholics. The Church leaders should trust the voters’ proper discernment.
As a result of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1992, the Church has also maintained that the laity, and not Church leaders, should be in the forefront of secular affairs. The Church hierarchy is to be relegated in the background, as moral compass of the laity and the public.
Of course, this did not happen. There have been signs that the Catholic Church is drifting from the honored tradition of letting the voters decide on their own.
In 2010, several bishops, which included Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, endorsed the candidacy of presidential bet John Carlos delos Reyes of Ang Kapatiran party. It was an open rebuke of Cory’s son, Benigno Aquino III.
These bishops went all out for Delos Reyes, whose platform of governance hewed closely to the teachings of the Church, versus Aquino who incurred the ire of the prelates for his ambivalent position then on the RH issue.
Aftermath of RH bill
The move of the Bacolod diocese is therefore not a surprise. In the first place, Navarra is known as one of the more progressive bishops. In CBCP plenary, he keeps his participation to a minimum. But in his diocese, he is socially and politically engaged.
One does not expect the bishops (at least some of them) to sulk in silence after losing the bloody battle over the reproductive health bill. And what better way to strike back than hit where it would hurt most: the political career of those aspiring to be leaders of this country?
What are the implications of the unprecedented move of the diocese of Bacolod?
Cruz says the CBCP as a whole, as a national body of bishops, would not likely follow the lead of the Bacolod diocese. That is to be expected, since the voice of 80-plus bishops will be taken into consideration in any collective pastoral statement.
“The CBCP will be standing by its practice of just issuing the basic qualifications and attributions that voters should look for in a candidate,” Cruz said.
But particular bishops can individually follow the Bacolod diocese’s example, Cruz says. “Each individual bishop is not accountable to the CBCP. That is their right, that is their call if they endorse or campaign against a particular candidate or candidates. They are only accountable to the Pope.”
In Lipa, too
The thing is, it is likely to happen. Or has already happened.
For instance, Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, through Church based groups, has endorsed the candidacy of the 3 Ang Kapatiran senatorial candidates: Delos Reyes, Rizalito David, and Marwil Llasos.
Last February 15, the Lipa Archdiocese held a Pro-Life Congress on the Batangueno Catholic Vote, where the 3 Kapatiran senatorial bets were proclaimed.
Still, unlike the Bacolod diocese, Arguelles did not go as far as asking the voters to junk particular candidates.
Should more bishops join the bandwagon of endorsing and campaigning against specific candidates, this will finally put to test the voting pull of the Catholic Church—power that has been traditionally a monopoly of the bloc-voting Iglesia ni Cristo.
Delos Reyes suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2010 presidential race, placing last in the field of 8. He only got 44,244 votes. The bishops’ endorsement of him may have bombed, but the Catholic vote should not be readily dismissed based on this.
The endorsement of Delos Reyes in 2010 was an initial attempt by the Church to name a candidate. For all we know, Catholic voters are now just warming up to the idea of their Church leaders anointing specific candidates.
What is sure and proven at some level is that there is such a thing as Catholic backlash. Former senator Juan Flavier knows this for sure. In the 1995 senatorial race, Flavier, a pro-family planning health secretary, was safely tucked in the top 2 position, based on surveys, behind Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
When the Catholic lay groups and church organizations campaigned against him, he slid to 5th position in the final Comelec count.
If the Catholic backlash holds true, survey leaders Loren Legarda and Francis Escudero may soon find themselves kicked out from their current secured status.
In being bolder in campaigning against particular senatorial candidates, the Church could be sending a signal to candidates in the local level—more particularly the congressional candidates who supported the RH bill—for them to start worrying that the time of reckoning is near.
In Negros Occidental, the two other dioceses there—Kabankalan and San Carlos—are expected to follow Bacolod’s lead. Incidentally, the RH measure won there—with 3 House members voting for the RH bill, 2 voting No, 1 abstaining, and 1 absent.
Of these 7 congressmen, 6 are seeking re-election, among them the 3 who supported the RH bill: Alfredo Benitez (3rd district), Alejandro Mirasol (5th district), and Mercedes Alvarez (6th district). Julio Ledesma IV, who voted yes in the 2nd reading but was absent on 3rd reading, is also a re-electionist.
The results of the senatorial and congressional races should validate once and for all if there is such a thing as a Catholic vote. – Rappler.com
Aries Rufo is an investigative journalist. He has written extensively on the Church, judiciary, the Senate, elections, and politics. He has received numerous citations and awards, among them the first prize for the Asia Pacific Region-Lorenzo Natali Journalism for Development award and the Jaime V Ongpin awards for investigative journalism.