Eighty-three percent of all Filipinos may be Catholics, but that doesn’t mean they vote according to the dictates of Church doctrine, or even on the basis of the candidate’s Church affiliation. This much can be concluded from the results of the more recent Philippine elections for President.

Fidel Ramos, being a Protestant, was not the Church’s choice, and neither was Joseph Estrada, who, though a Catholic, kept mistresses, gambled, liked to drink, and favored bad company. Both became Presidents, anyway.

Ramos, some would argue, was a minority president elected from a field of seven, which meant that his faith was less of a disadvantage to him than if he had ran against just one rival. But the same can’t be said of Estrada, against whom the Church led a spirited campaign predicting dire consequences if he were elected. Despite those predictions, Estrada won handily anyway, although the Church did have its revenge in 2001, when it succeeded—with prodigious help from militant groups, civil society, the media, and the military—in removing him from office.

What is certain is that Filipino Catholic voters don’t vote as a bloc. Obviously, enough Catholics voted for Ramos to put him in Malacanang in 1992, and many Catholics to whom the Church had tirelessly condemned Estrada’s hard-drinking and mistress-keeping, together with his limited intellectual capacities voted for him in 1998. They ignored the Church’s expressed preferences each time, and instead decided on the basis of such criteria as Ramos’ high visibility during the coup attempts against the Aquino government, and Estrada’s screen persona as the voice and avenger of the masses.

It’s not because Filipino Catholics are especially perverse. The acceptance of any idea, much more a doctrine, whether political or religious, requires validation by personal need and experience. Catholic doctrine is no exception. Unfortunately for one of its favored metaphors, people are not sheep that can be led to wherever a demagogue wants. What those who would presume to lead are saying must coincide with the ideas of those they would lead.

In this sense, leaders only express what the many think and feel. In the two instances when the Church called to the faithful to decide political events—at EDSA 1 and 1—and was heeded, middle class sentiment against dictatorship and corruption had seethed for years. If they came to EDSA it was to heed the call of their own convictions, and only secondarily the Church.

A politician, however, can’t take chances, and has to err on the side of the assumption that there is such a thing as a Catholic vote. Every candidate who’s Catholic thus makes it a point to be photographed on his or her knees in Church while receiving the sacraments, or being blessed by priest, bishop or cardinal. But come election day he or she knows that his or her displays of piety may not necessarily translate into votes. For that kind of certainty, the conventional wisdom is to go to the Iglesia Ni Cristo, the votes of whose members, it is assumed, will go whichever way its leader says.

Even that may be an oversimplification. INC membership has almost always voted as the majority votes, which could suggest that its leadership decides to support whoever it thinks its members will vote for anyway. But despite—or because of—that distinct possibility, the INC leadership’s alleged capacity to command the votes of its members means a pilgrimage of candidates to Erano (it used to be Felix) Manalo’s residence every election year.

Like every Filipino politician, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has to err on the side of the possibility that there’s a Catholic vote, 83 percent of the population representing a lot of votes. She hasn’t given up trying to woo the INC either. But apparently of even greater significance in her calculations is the United States, whose support she regards as even more crucial to her political fortunes than that of the Church.

It does seem as if the Church were Mrs. Arroyo’s main concern. From day one of her Presidency she after all made it clear that her policies would hew closely to Catholic doctrine, primarily those on family planning and abortion, divorce, and—though somewhat reluctantly—its opposition to the death penalty.

Two years and eight months since she assumed the Presidency, fidelity to Church doctrine on these and other matters seems a policy fundamental in Mrs. Arroyo’s government. Her visit to the Vatican tended to say so. But her visit to the United Nations, in the context of the incredibly pro-US foreign policy she has adopted, suggested instead that her fidelity to Church doctrine is second only to her fidelity to US interests and policies.

Mrs. Arroyo has so far trumpeted two messages for Filipino consumption. The first is that despite the Philippines’ being an independent country, during her watch it will out-UN the UN and send more peacekeeping troops to Iraq as requested by her patron, George W. Bush.

The second message is that, despite the Philippines’ being a secular state, the Arroyo government’s policies nevertheless remain firmly tied to Catholic Church doctrine. Unfortunately these messages contradicted each other.

As if on US cue at the UN, and in contradiction of her statements only last February, Mrs. Arroyo went out of her way to argue that no, the United Nations has not become irrelevant, and international law is still needed.

Last February she had urged the UN to sanction an attack on Iraq or risk being obsolete, and implied thereby that the only law that matters is the law of force, in the wake of George W. Bush’s claim that UN “inaction” (despite continuing UN weapons inspections in Iraq) would make it irrelevant. This time, a few short days after Bush had reversed himself and begged UN members for support in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq, Mrs. Arroyo has suddenly rediscovered the relevance of the UN and international law.

At the Vatican, Mrs. Arroyo said she assured Pope John Paul II that Philippine policies—on family planning, abortion, divorce and the death penalty are in conformity with Catholic doctrine.

That statement was only partly true because it omitted the fact that Philippine government policy on Iraq was and still is the direct opposite of the Church’s. Pope John Paul II had called a US attack on Iraq immoral and unjustified early this year, and had tried to prevent it through moral suasion. The Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, echoing that position, had asked Mrs. Arroyo to “obey the Pope instead of Bush” in the wake of her unqualified support for a US preemptive strike on that country.

Despite the Church’s position, Philippine policy was as distant from that of Catholic doctrine as that of George W. Bush’s is from mainstream Protestant thought. In addition, Philippine policy on Iraq also put some 1.5 million overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East in danger of losing not only their jobs, but also their lives and limbs.

Mrs. Arroyo has indeed been very enthusiastic about Philippine policy on family planning and population control. But Mrs. Arroyo—whose security forces have shown a predilection for murdering political and social activists—has only reluctantly observed a moratorium on the death penalty. On Iraq, on the other hand, the policy has been to support the United States despite what the Vatican and Catholic doctrine say.

Mrs. Arroyo’s visits to the UN and the Vatican occurred in the context of the possibility that, citing God’s counsel, she will run in 2004 despite her announcement to the contrary last December. Both visits are thus political, and Mrs. Arroyo’s statements aimed at the voters back home.

In an effort to engage Catholic support, those statements tried to reconcile the irreconcilable: support for Catholic doctrine and support for US colonialism in Iraq.

Never mind concerns over the separation of Church and State. That relationship has remained problematic for 300 years, and is almost impossible to observe in a country where everyone thinks everyone else is a Catholic on whom one can inflict prayers in State schools, the “three o’clock habit” over television, and Santo Nino images in every government office.

What Filipinos should be concerned about as Mrs. Arroyo prepares to announce her candidacy in 2004 is how the Philippine head of state tried to portray herself as faithful to the Church while continuing to support the US on Iraq in violation of the very Church doctrines she claims to champion. That means never mind the Catholic Church when its policies conflict with US interests. What matters is the United States and the support it can provide for 2004.

Adherence to Church doctrine is not the fundamental of government policy that Mrs. Arroyo’s emphasis on family planning and abortion, divorce and the death penalty tried to prove. Support for the US is. The Filipino voter would do well to keep that in mind come 2004.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 30, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Sobrang sang-ayon ako sa inyo. Kaya nga nang i-post ko sa Filipino Youth for Peace website yung front-page photo ng Inquirer noong isang araw, ang gianwa kong heading ay “Ano ang mali sa larawang ito?” Si Gloria at ang Santo Papa? Kakaiba!

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