Politicized bishops putting PPCRV in a bind

Aries C. Rufo

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Bishops serve as de-facto chairpersons of the election watchdog in the provinces. The active campaigning of some against certain candidates casts doubt on the PPCRV's non-partisan status.

MANILA, Philippines – Not too long ago, at a meeting of the Bishops-Businessmen Conference (BBC), former Senator Vicente “Ting” Paterno made an off-the-cuff comment on the growing number of prelates taking a more active role in the forthcoming elections.

He was particularly concerned about the campaign of some dioceses against supporters of the reproductive health (RH) law and its possible impact on the election watchdog role of the Church-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).

“These bishops  should stay away from PPCRV or it will lose its credibility,” Paterno said.

Paterno, co-chairman of the BBC and vice chairman National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), hit the bullseye with his observation. As it is, intrusion into politics has been one of the criticisms hurled at the Church. The prelates are further blurring the line with their open endorsement of candidates who are against reproductive Health and negative campaigning against those who support it.

Caught in this political activism – some would say, political adventurism – by bishops is the PPCRV, which, as it name implies, is a Catholic laity-based organization.

Because of the overt political stance of the bishops, several groups have openly asked the PPCRV to drop “Parish Pastoral Council” from its name, or shed all pretensions of non-partisanship. How can the PPCRV claim to be a non-partisan citizen’s arm when certain dioceses that are under the control and jurisdiction of bishops are engaged in active political campaign?

It didn’t help that PPCRV chair Henrietta de Villa said she is personally against the RH law, which could be an implied endorsement of anti-RH candidates and a rejection of pro-RH bets.

While de Villa has taken great lengths to explain that her opinion is hers alone and not of the PPCRV, the fact is that she cannot totally dissociate herself from the organization which she helped put up in 1991.

Daughter of PCP 2

PPCRV traces its existence and origin from the Second Plenary Council held in 1991, where Church and lay leaders sought to redefine  their role in society. In that council,  it was assessed that the laity should be in the forefront of political and social affairs, with Church leaders taking a secondary role. PCP 2 envisioned a Church of the Poor,  a church committed to empowering the poor and working with them to achieve social justice.

One major concrete outcome of the council is to form the PPCRV, with the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin as its godfather and De Villa, who was president then of the Council of the Laity of the Philippines, as its president.

The PPCRV first participated as the Commission on Elections’ citizens’ arm in the 1992 national elections,  performing voter education and poll monitoring.

As  a Church-based organization, it relied on the dioceses for logistics and manpower support. It focused on voter education in succeeding elections. Its board of trustees are composed of bishops. The other citizens’ arm, Namfrel, on the other hand, focused on quick count operations.

Rift with Namfrel

For a time, Namfrel and PPCRV co-existed, each with distinct roles in elections. Both relied heavily on parishes for volunteers. In some areas, Namfrel and PPCRV share the same coordinators at the diocesan level.

But politics marred their relationship.

It began when De Villa was named ambassador to the Vatican by President Joseph Estrada. Bishops began casting a wary eye on De Villa when she issued a statement, at the height of moves to oust Estrada, that the Vatican was still supportive of the beleaguered president, despite the rumblings of local Church leaders.

In the 2004 elections, it was Namfrel’s turn to be questioned. It claimed that the national poll was generally peaceful and orderly, despite massive allegations of cheating in favor of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. By this time, De Villa had returned to the good graces of some bishops.

In the 2007 polls, De Villa attempted to wrestle control of poll duties from Namfrel by partnering with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ social arm NASSA. The plan was foiled as Sister Roseanne Mallillin, who was then the executive director of NASSA, had other plans. She had wanted to usurp both the functions of Namfrel and PPCRV under a new Church group, Vote-Care.

Sensing the ambush, then Namfrel chair Jose Concepcion and De Villa temporarily set aside their differences for their common interest.

In 2009, trying to heal the rift, Namfrel decided to name De Villa as head of Namfrel and PPCRV at the same time.  But they could not set aside their contrasting positions on the automated polls.

De Villa was fully supportive of the automated polls, while Namfrel had its doubts. In the latter part of 2009, Namfrel officials ousted De Villa as their president.

Things turned for the worse when PPCRV, in the good graces of Comelec officials, sought to block Namfrel’s accreditation as citizens’ arm. This time, Namfrel and NASSA, under a new leadership, formed a tactical alliance.

De Villa succeeded. Not only was she able to block Namfrel, she also upended it by getting for PPCRV, Comelec’s approval to conduct the random manual audit, which Namfrel had sought to perform.

De Villa’s coup did not sit well with the bishops, especially those who had reservations about the automated elections.

Politicized bishops

While PPCRV and Namfrel engaged in a tug of war, the bishops were in the mood for their own political adventurism. Six prelates – Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguellles, Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias, Ilagan Bishop Joseph Nacua, San Jose de Mindoro Bishop Antonio Palang, Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, and resigned Novaliches bishop Teodoro Bacani – endorsed the candidacy of Kapatiran Party bet John Carlos delos Reyes during the 2010 presidential race. This did not help PPCRV’s cause.

Out of the 6, only Arguelles and Navarra resigned as respective chairs of the PPCRV in their dioceses because of their open endorsement of a candidate.

For the 2013 elections, history appears to be repeating itself.

Like in 2010, the trigger was the divisive RH law, which the Church vigorously opposed. Navarra’s diocese started the ball rolling by putting up Team Patay and Team Buhay tarpaulins, naming senatorial candidates that should be voted for or not.

The Lipa archdiocese has followed suit, with lay leaders conducting house-to-house campaign in the guise of voter education. Lay leaders said they will come up with their own list of candidates just before the elections.

Lay groups in the Cebu archdiocese have also come up with their own list that endorses specific candidates, supposedly with the backing of Archbishop Jose Palma. The Malolos diocese, for its part, is also conducting “discreet” campaigning for and against candidates based on their stand on RH.

The overarching agenda is to create a Catholic vote, based on Church standards.

Arguelles has already distanced himself from the PPCRV, creating a huge vacuum for the citizens’ arm in Batangas province. Arguelles said the Lipa Archdiocese has dropped both PPCRV and Namfrel. He told Rappler in an interview that more bishops could follow his lead.

Save for Arguelles’ move, the overt acts of the other dioceses have put PPCRV’s non-partisan status in question.

Catholic bishops are de-facto chairs of PPCRV in the provinces. What happens now that some of them have taken a public stand on certain candidates and the issues that they are pushing?

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal said in a forum that Catholic bishops who have crossed the line should leave the PPCRV and not allow their parishes to take part in PPCRV activities. Parish workers and volunteers “should be liberated from the PPCRV and do what their bishops are telling them,” he said.

Macalintal pointed out that PPCRV coordinators are appointed by the bishops. Since they draw their authority from a bishop who has lost his non-partisan status, it follows that the diocesan PPCRV coordinators have also become partisan.

De Villa said she does not see any conflict between a bishop who is partisan and the dioceses being coordinators of PPCRV. “It is up to the bishops” whether they would want to endorse candidates or not, she said.

While she acknowledges that parishes, where PPCRV draws its volunteers, are under the control of the bishops, De Villa said it does not follow that the lay coordinators and volunteers are partisan themselves.

Given the changing dynamics, with more and more bishops crossing the thin line into political involvement in elections,  a senior Church official said the bishops might re-assess their role in the PPCRV in future elections.

Should they be at the forefront of political affairs or just allow the laity, through the PPCRV, to lead the way? Or was it just their growing disenchantment with the present PPCRV chair that’s prompting the bishops to cross the line? – 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.

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