The political church

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We could charitably grant that some of them were genuinely grieving. But the attendance of politicians of various stripes, including Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at the wake and/or interment of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) Executive Minister Erano Manalo was nevertheless a political act.

INC control over 1.5 million “command votes” could make and probably has made the difference between losing and winning at the polls, especially in such closely-contested elections as those of 2004. One survey says some 84 percent of its members vote for candidates endorsed by its leaders, in keeping with the INC doctrine of “religious unity” that the late Manalo once said was “essential to spiritual salvation.”

Whether for spiritual salvation or not, the doctrine has resulted in INC’s having a power disproportionate to its numbers. The rest of us can only speculate about the concessions it gets from those politicians who do get its votes. INC leaders have also nurtured this power by supporting whatever administration is in office, while keeping its connections with the opposition open.

The naughty could argue that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo didn’t need INC votes to win in 2004, only money and Garci, and that she could repeat the feat in 2010 should she decide to run, after all. But in 2007, she declared July 27 as “Iglesia Ni Cristo Day” anyway, and followed that up with a July 8, 2009 proclamation making “Iglesia Ni Cristo Day” an official working holiday henceforth. After all, it pays to cover all the bases, despite COMELEC innumeracy. And if the reports are true, INC has been a reliable Arroyo and administration cohort, its influence being among the factors (money helped too) that convinced Congress to reject the impeachment complaints filed against her after the 2004 elections.

Before anyone gets on his or her high horse to condemn the INC for messing around with Philippine politics, let’s not forget that the Catholic Church does meddle in politics too. To begin with, it does support candidates, at times openly and in others clandestinely. The politicians don’t mind that support, they themselves being usually Catholic like 83 percent of all Filipinos.

The jury’s still out on whether Church support matters, but the Church and most people assume that it does. It supported Corazon Aquino in 1986, although no one really knows who won the snap elections that year. In 1992 it endorsed the Catholic Ramon Mitra against the Protestant Fidel V. Ramos, who won anyway. Joseph Estrada also won despite the Church campaign against him (“Anyone but Erap”) in 1998. The Church did get its revenge later; it was at the forefront of the effort to oust Estrada, and to have plunder charges filed against him

About the next elections, the Church hasn’t said much so far, except to declare that should the three candidates from the religious sector who said they would run in 2010 indeed make good on their word (Fr. Ed Panlilio has since announced his support for Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III), it could mean splitting opposition votes. The statement only appears neutral. Despite what some of the Arroyo bishops (who love her adherence to Church population dogma) may say, the observation assumes that the opposition needs to win in 2010.

For 2010 the Church is unlikely to do a repeat of 2007, when it announced that it would not support any particular candidate. “To dictate on them (Catholics) whom to vote for is as bad as buying their votes.” Catholics are free to vote for whoever they want, said then CBCP President Angel Lagdameo.

Interesting. Was the CBCP saying that by endorsing candidates in the past, the Church was doing something “as bad as buying votes” and that, in those times, Catholics were not free? Even more interestingly, was the archbishop saying that those religious groups that do ask their members to vote for certain candidates are doing the same thing, as well as denying their members the freedom to choose who to vote for? Was that a not- too- subtle dig at the INC?

In fact Archbishop Oscar Cruz, a former CBCP president, also weighed in, describing what he said was a suggestion that the Church should follow the INC example, as “incongruous.”

As far as supporting candidates for office goes, the Church’s only difference from the INC is its either announcing that support, or merely demonstrating it in other ways. Since practically all the candidates are Catholics anyway, such endorsements seem superfluous, since whoever wins is likely to be a Catholic. What kind of Catholic — whether he or she takes his or her Catholicism seriously enough to keep his or her fingers off the treasury, for example — is of course another matter.

Apparently one can be both Catholic and a thief at the same time. And why not? The Church was after all involved in the vast thievery that was Spanish colonialism, having been a major player in Philippine politics since Legazpi landed on these shores. Not only was it instrumental in the conquest of these islands, it also provided the ideological justification for Spanish colonialism, declaring it as much sin and heresy to oppose the Spanish crown as it was to oppose the Church. And it did endorse US colonial rule as well, despite chafing over the arrival and official encouragement of US Protestant Missionaries, and such US efforts to undermine its influence as the creation of the public educational system.

It also gave martial law “critical support” primarily because of the Marcos regime’s anti-communism. The support part often seemed to weigh heavier than the critical part, and Cardinal Sin’s partying with the Marcoses aboard the presidential yacht didn’t help dispel that impression. EDSA 1 did.

But as an institution it isn’t saying much today about the corruption that has eaten into the Filipino moral universe, or the human rights crisis that has resulted from government efforts to silence its critics. In 2007 Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales went to the extent of dismissing extra- judicial killings during the Arroyo watch as of little concern because they were “a mere blood-speck” compared to the killings during the Marcos period.

The relative silence of most Church prelates — against corruption, injustice, human rights violations–could be the worst thing that’s happened to the Church during the Arroyo watch, when government gambling money has flowed into the coffers of certain bishops. It suggests that the Church is no less immune to manipulation and corruption than other institutions. Armed with a history of the Church in the Philippines, many Filipinos have actually known that for years. Some see little difference between the majority Church and INC in their common meddling in politics. But the truth is that the former’s political influence and savvy is a whole universe apart and some 200 years ahead of any other church.

(BusinessWorld)

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