When religious leaders speak

When the Iglesia Ni Cristo speaks, politicians have to listen.  Of the country’s numerous religious communities, the INC alone commands the kind of organized vote that can make or unmake politicians. To a lesser degree, El Shaddai wields a similar political clout.  This is the power of small but tightly organized groups.  The Catholic Church is several times bigger but it does not determine the political behavior of its members.

Therefore, when INC’s Executive Minister Erano Manalo and El Shaddai’s Brother Mike Velarde come together to take a position on the political crisis, what they say can shape the manner of its resolution.  I do not mean to suggest that they should, but only to describe the political reality in our society – a reality that I hope we may someday transcend.  For I fully subscribe to John Dewey’s belief that: “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing.”

Ka Erdie and Bro. Mike, as they are often called by politicians and legions of followers, have appealed to the nation’s leaders “to bring to an end the political bickerings that have been going on for months and have been hurting our nation so much, particularly its economy.” They have asked them to focus their efforts on the alleviation of the people’s suffering, and to resolve the issues by “peaceful and constitutional means,” in such a way as not to “consume the greater part of their time and energy” to the neglect of “the pressing needs of our people.”

The statement is either empty rhetoric or a subtle directive to the Administration and Opposition to find a suitable compromise lest the situation deteriorates to a point which neither one will survive.  The call is addressed to politicians; it provides no guidance to ordinary people who may wish to be more than just spectators to outcomes produced by their increasingly worthless leaders.

Ka Erdie and Bro. Mike say they are compelled to break their silence on the issues facing the country.  It is encouraging that their joint statement does not counsel the public to just move on as if nothing happened.  Since a lot of people depend on their moral wisdom, one hopes they may also break their silence on such questions as the following: (1) Are the allegations brought out by the Garci Tapes worth investigating?  (2) Is the dismissal of the impeachment complaint against Ms Arroyo on technical grounds morally defensible? (3) Is it necessary to inquire into widespread allegations of the misuse of public funds in the 2004 election?  (4) Is Ms Arroyo immune from moral accountability for the way she exercises the powers and prerogatives of her office?  (5) Do the people have a moral basis to question the right of Ms Arroyo to remain in office and to air their grievances in the streets?

As a secular democrat, I wish that the exercise of one’s faith were a purely private and personal matter, and that the guidance of one’s religious elders did not extend to one’s political behavior.  But the contingencies of our people’s history and the particularities of our nation’s life compel us to take into account religion’s role in the shaping of our democracy.  Until we can have a fully secular society – a goal that the philosopher Vattimo conceives to be “the paradoxical realization of Being’s religious vocation” – our people will turn to their religious leaders for direction in almost every aspect of their lives. This puts leaders like Ka Erdie and Bro. Mike, not to mention the Catholic bishops, in a privileged but difficult position to contribute to either the advancement or the retardation of Philippine democracy.

Once they take up this role, there is almost no room for playing it halfway.  You either keep completely silent on questions that have a direct political bearing, or you wade into the water with open hearts and state your position as clearly and as unequivocally as possible. The pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in July unfortunately lent itself to such equivocation when it called for reflection and discernment by the laity while explicitly stating it was not calling for Ms Arroyo’s resignation.  It is a far cry from the straightforward statement of the De la Salle Brothers, who, early in this crisis, became a source of courage and wisdom.  The Jesuit community in the Philippines, through its Commission on the Social Apostolate, has recently come out with what it calls “guidelines in a time of confusion and crisis.”  It is the clearest statement to be formulated by a religious group.

Its commitment to democracy is sharp.  It states a moral position, and does not hesitate to analyze the situation in its light.  Without saying explicitly what alternative must be put in place, it shows the way forward. The quest for the truth at all costs, ultimately a moral imperative, runs through the whole document.

Like Bro. Mike and Ka Erdie’s call, the Jesuit statement champions the basic cause of the poor, but instead of treating this as separate from the current political crisis, it connects the resolution of poverty to the transformation of the corrupt political system that has bred the present crisis.  It says: “Indeed, the search for the truth is integrally linked to the fate of the poor. Corruption and dishonesty have made the lot of the poor worse.”

To call for an end to bickering without understanding its causes is to belittle the people’s voices against the system.  It is to take the side of power.

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