When bishops apologize

No one saw it coming: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines apologizing for causing pain and confusion among its flock over an issue in which some bishops have been implicated. Filipinos are so used to hearing public figures cynically offer implausible justifications for their actions, or throw back mud at their critics in response, that many anticipated a bruising battle between Church and State over the issue of using public funds to purchase vehicles for some favored bishops. The CBCP’s gesture of humility will not put closure to the issue. But it elevates it to a level that dispels antagonism and makes room for nuance and context.

The CBCP is perhaps the Catholic hierarchy’s most important organ of collective expression on problems and concerns relating to its members, the work of the Church, and the state of society in general. Its pronouncements on vital issues carry tremendous weight notably in times of crisis because they are usually based on a concrete grasp of the situation on the ground. Its pastoral work among the poor and the marginalized – abused women and children, indigenous peoples, the elderly and the sick, the abandoned, the homeless and the landless – often dwarfs the government’s own programs for these sectors.

By taking up the cudgels for the individual bishops and apologizing as a collective body, the CBCP achieves three things. First, it affirms its integrity as a community that is conscious of its responsibilities. Second, it signals to the larger society its determination to review and define its role and its entanglement with society in the face of the challenges of growing complexity. And lastly, it draws the line between moral responsibility, which it accepts and applies to itself, and legal accountability, to which the individual bishops are submitting themselves.

As I write this, the Senate investigation on the use of the funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office is hearing the side of the bishops who have been invited. A situation like this is fraught with danger; many sensitivities are at play here. Having invited the bishops to appear before the committee, the senators are expected to ask them the kind of probing questions they normally ask of the individuals they summon to their hearings. On the other hand, they are also aware that devout Catholics will react to any attempt by political leaders to subject the bishops to any form of humiliation.

I was quite certain that the bishops would be treated with great deference, and that is exactly what happened at the hearing. The bishops essentially reiterated the message of the CBCP – i.e., that the vehicles from the PCSO were used mainly in the various social action programs of their dioceses. They apologized for the pain and confusion that the controversy has caused. They said they had assumed there was nothing illegal or irregular about getting grants like these from the PCSO since they were consistent with the Church’s partnership with government in numerous outreach programs.

For his part, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos admitted that he had committed a lapse in judgment when he wrote to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo asking for a vehicle as birthday gift. He was not aware, he said, that Arroyo had endorsed his letter to the PCSO. He made it clear that the vehicle he got was not being used solely as a personal service vehicle. Speaking for the group in his closing statement to the Senate, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said they had made a decision at the recent CBCP meeting to return the vehicles to the PCSO.

The senators graciously responded by urging them to please keep them. But the archbishop said it was important for them to return these tainted vehicles not only “to clear the air,” but also out of a “prophetic” sense of what this entire incident seems to be telling them. At this point, the committee thanked the bishops for their presence and excused them from the rest of the hearing. The senators then resumed their no-holds-barred interrogation of the rest of the guests, chiding PCSO Chair Margarita Juico for not correcting erroneous media reports that the vehicles in question were Pajeros – as if that detail substantially alters the picture.

What we are witnessing here, I think, is a gradual process of differentiation of institutional systems – a disentangling of interwoven roles – that is long overdue. The political system that had been compromised at every point, particularly during the patronage-driven presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is, at last, taking a hard look at itself. In the process, it cannot avoid inquiring into the privileged pool of beneficiaries that received its largesse. Still, as Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile put it, the responsibility for this mess rests with government. It was his way of telling the bishops that they would not be held legally liable.

But the Church knows that it too has its own radical disentangling to carry out. So many among the clergy have conducted themselves like political surrogates of the powerful, routinely lending the prestige of their religious offices in support of the worldly ambitions of their secular patrons. The CBCP has made it clear that this should not continue. But they prefer to view such conduct not so much as a fatal moral flaw, but as the outcome of a lack of discernment. In less moral language, I take discernment to mean learning to differentiate spheres of human activity and communication – and to avoid mixing roles. This is modernity’s imperative. We have recognized it, but we have not fully realized its urgency.