Sanctimonious and cheap

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In addition to condemning “the continuing culture of corruption from top to bottom of our social and political ladder (sic)” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) decided, after a 12-hour meeting last February 26, to —

1) “urge the President and all branches of government to take the lead in combating corruption wherever it is found;

2) “recommend the abolition of Executive Order 464 so that those who may have knowledge of any corruption in branches of government may be free to testify before the appropriate investigating bodies;

3) “ask the President to allow her subordinates to redeem any corrupt acts, particularly about the ZTE-NBN deal without being obstructed in their testimony, no matter who is involved”;

4) “appeal to our senators and the Ombudsman to use their distinct and different powers of inquiry into alleged corruption cases, not for their own interests, but for the common good; and

5) “call on media to be a positive force in seeking the truth and combating corruption by objective reporting, without bias and partiality, selective and tendentious reporting of facts”.

The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse. But these “recommendations” also indicate either a charmingly naïve view of the Philippine political system and the vile creatures who dominate it, or a cunning attempt to absolve Mrs. Arroyo of allegations that she’s not only involved in the vast web of corruption that characterizes her watch as putative president of the Republic, she’s also right in the center of it.

The condemnation of corruption is a motherhood statement even the most corrupt regularly mouth in this country of lost hopes. On the other hand, the suggestion that the government lead in combating corruption assumes that its functionaries can rise above their own interests — which in this, one of the darkest periods in recent Philippine history, consist of clinging to power at all costs and enriching themselves at the expense of the people they’re supposed to serve.

The call for Mrs. Arroyo to allow her subordinates to reveal what they know about government corruption — an appeal particularized through the companion plea to rescind Executive Order 464 — is in the same order of futility. The Palace has announced that Mrs. Arroyo “will consider” the CBCP recommendations. But she’s as likely to allow her subordinates in the executive branch to reveal all as for Benjamin Abalos to donate his billions to charity.

Meanwhile, the gratuitous call on the media to be “a positive force in seeking the truth and combating corruption by objective reporting, without bias and partiality, [or] selective and tendentious reporting of facts” is not only as cheap and sanctimonious as its other “recommendations.” It also echoes Arroyo regime claims that the media have been biased and irresponsible in their reporting of the corruption crisis, whereas content analysis reveals that the major networks and broadsheets — the most influential of the media — have generally tried to be otherwise.

But the most disturbing of these recommendations is how much the CBCP as the Catholic Church’s most powerful institution has succumbed to the allure of power and pelf. Those aware of some bishops’ benefitting from such government largesse as Pagcor funds — all for the benefit of their flock, of course — can be forgiven for assuming that the moral agnosticism the CBCP has demonstrated is meant to protect those material interests, among others.

This should no longer be surprising. The Church hierarchy has always been part of the power elite, an institution which, during the 300 years the country was under Spanish captivity, was a principal pillar of colonial power.

While keeping the restive Indios at bay and plundering the resources of these isles of shame, it amassed not only power and influence but also wealth the Forty Thieves would have trouble imagining. Naturally it resisted change whenever and wherever it could. It was entirely in its interests that it suppressed all attempts at reform during the Spanish period both through the power the colonial government shared with it, as well as through its influence over the minds and hearts of the colonized.

It retained much of its power during the US colonial period, and following the recognition of Philippine independence in 1946 was among the wealthiest of churches on the planet. During the martial law period the Church adopted a policy of critical collaboration with the Marcos regime that was more collaborative than critical. But in recognition of the universal outrage the regime had provoked, in February 1986 it called on the people to support the military mutineers who had withdrawn to Camps Aguinaldo and Crame upon Marcos’ discovery of the Ramos-Enrile-RAM coup conspiracy.

Church support for People Power 1 is justly attributed to the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, whose preeminence as cardinal and archbishop of Manila prevented those bishops supportive of Marcos from opposing his decision to call on the flock to join the military-civilian uprising Filipinos now know as EDSA 1.

Sin had supported Marcos because he was anti-communist, but realized that continuing that support would erode Church influence in any post-Marcos setting. On the other hand there was little risk in supporting the uprising. By February 1986 the Marcos regime had been so weakened by widespread resistance as well as by the divisions within the military and United States withdrawal of support that its overthrow was likely. It wasn’t much of a gamble to nudge its overthrow.

A gamble it would be for the CBCP to take a firm position on the present crisis, such as demanding the resignation of Mrs. Arroyo and calling out the people to force her to do so. Today as in 1986, only the certainty or near-certainty of her ouster would compel the bishops to do otherwise.

The Church hierarchy is in this sense as much of an opportunist as the military’s generals, who would shift allegiances once assured that a regime change is certain. But while assuring the preservation of its interests, this opportunism yields the moral high ground to other forces, among them individual priests and nuns as well as those congregations willing to defend the people’s right to honest governance; civil society and militant groups; professionals; businessmen sick of having to do business with scoundrels, and others not as morally ambiguous as the country’s bishops. The CBCP’s failure to join these forces could yet lead to what Sin feared most in 1986: the loss of Church credibility and influence in case of regime change.

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