Should bishops lead political actions?

Yesterday’s Inquirer editorial, titled “Checkmated bishops”, sharply rebukes the Catholic bishops for refusing to take up the activist role that the late Cardinal Sin had played in past political crises: i.e., “to make clear to the populace what should be done,” and “to lead the people.” The editorial echoes a popular, if dangerous, view. I am sure the editors will not mind this rejoinder in the spirit of democratic debate.

But, first, a disclosure.  My younger brother, Pablo Virgilio David, is auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of San Fernando, Pampanga.  He is also a member of the permanent council of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).  The proper role of the clergy in the modern world has been a recurrent topic of our conversations. We have looked at the question critically from the perspective of social theory and of Catholic doctrine. I can say in all candor that my bishop-brother is more open to the idea of the clergy playing an activist role in Philippine political matters during crucial moments, than I am willing to concede as a secular democrat.

The Inquirer editorial states: “If there’s any sector that should have the intellectual sophistication and moral conviction to make clear to the populace what should be done, it should be the Catholic bishops.” I grant the intellectual sophistication and moral conviction of many of our Catholic bishops, but I would not want them, as religious leaders, to tell me what to do or what to believe in politics, or law, or science, or art, etc.

To beg them to tell us what to do or to lead us in the fight against an abusive regime is to authorize them to substitute their judgment for the public’s own evolving opinion.  It is one thing to welcome a reading of events from the moral standpoint of the clergy, but it is another to allow that interpretation – for all its sophistication and conviction — to dominate the entire horizon of our understanding of the world.  I am glad that today’s bishops no longer treat us like children.  They have prodded us to form “circles of discernment”, to draw strength from the solidarity we can offer to those who risk their lives as they speak the truth, and to decide as a community what forms of action we should undertake.  It is all they should do in a society that aspires to be a democracy.  That is not an abdication of their moral duty; it is a prudent recognition of the limits of their authority.

Nations that put religious leaders at the forefront of the state are becoming a thing of the past, notwithstanding the resurgence of a kind of religious fundamentalism that seeks to colonize every sphere of society.  Our break from such a tradition was decisive at the very moment of our birth as an independent nation – in the drafting of the Malolos constitution.  We cannot return to it.  No doubt, we continue to feel the influence in our modern lives of a moral code supplied by religion.  As an element of our moral identity as a people, it has a

positive impact on our society. Be that as it may, I think it is a great setback to be waiting for new Cardinal Sins to make clarion calls summoning us to Edsa or to anywhere else, just as I think it is a setback politically when religious leaders dictate government policy to those they have helped install to power.

I share everything else that the Inquirer editorial expresses in urgent tones.  “If the administration has become a constitutional wrecking crew, then what should people of conscience do?” the Inquirer asks.

We should trust that conscience is not a monopoly of the bishops. Pope Benedict XVI once said that the role of the clergy is to form and educate consciences, and not to substitute their conscience for that of the laity’s.  In the face of a political crisis, many of us will find this papal reminder conservative. But, insofar as it springs from a respect for the autonomy of functional spheres, it is correct, modern, and democratic.

To ask the bishops to instruct us to do more, on account of the moral influence they wield, is to follow a shortcut.  It is analogous to begging the military to launch a coup to topple a government, using the armed power that the Constitution has placed in their hands.  These are shortcuts because they bypass the longer and circuitous route of political conscientization and organization. Consequently, the regime change that is the fruit of the journey cannot be the achievement of the people themselves.  They are brought to where they are without knowing where they are.  The journey does not teach them anything about themselves or about politics.  A new government is formed in their name, but they cannot see themselves as its authors or its stewards.

If all this sounds familiar, it is because we’ve been there before.  In our impatience, we, who think of ourselves as intellectually sophisticated, lead the march for change and leave the rest of the people behind.  When the dust settles down, seeing that the people are back to where they came from, we ask, perplexed, why they have gone back to their old ways. The fact is they never left.  We did not give them the chance to think for themselves, find their own way, and free themselves.

It bothers me to have to write like this when we appear once more on the verge of a regime change, and all that is needed, it seems, is to get our moral elders to lead the way.  I beg to disagree.  At the risk of being misunderstood, I consider political action resulting from the slow boil of the people’s anger ultimately more enduring than any dish we can cook with microwave heat.


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