Let’s get the usual “separation-of-church-and-state” argument out of the way first. Securing the Pope, whoever he may be, is a State responsibility and no one in his right mind should be arguing against it. No one should begrudge the Catholic faithful among the citizenry the opportunity to at least see the Pope in person either. If providing that opportunity requires declaring January 15, 16 and 19 holidays, then by all means should those dates be holidays.
The point is that neither assuring the Pope’s safety nor providing Filipinos the chance to see him impinges on the Constitutional prohibition against “respecting an establishment of religion.” What does are those State actions that would mandate, say, prayer in public schools, or making one’s religion a condition for State employment.
The Philippine government’s securing the Pope has to do not so much with religious fervor as with meeting a State responsibility. On the other hand, allowing eight out of ten Filipinos the opportunity to make that visit as memorable as possible is a courtesy similar to that accorded the Iglesia Ni Cristo anniversary, during which policemen secured the venues of the celebration, or the Muslims among us, whose various holy days have been recognized by the State as worthy of respect.
What matters is what Pope Francis will be saying and doing during his visit. One hopes that beyond the frenzy over how to secure his person, the places he’ll visit, the people he’ll be talking to and having lunch with, even what he’ll wear—or the fruitless debate over whether the Constitutional prohibition against the separation of Church and State is being violated—Pope Francis will deliver more than homilies and the usual verities Catholics hear from the pulpits every Sunday.
Some critics have dismissed this Pope’s progressive declarations, for example on the rights of LGBTs and the imperative for the cardinals and other leaders of the Church to reform themselves, as “mere words,” forgetting that words have the power to convince and move the millions who can change the world. What appears in the media daily are mostly mere words (and images) as well, but media power is nevertheless at least among the factors that has made the world, as awful as it is, what it is today.
What the head of 1.1 billion Catholics says and will say are capable of influencing the way the faithful look at the world, and their place in it. Thus the interest over whether the Pope is a conservative, as Benedict XVI was, or a progressive as Pope John XXIII was, and as Francis apparently is. Like the media, which can advance change or retard it, what the Pope says can help keep things the way they are, or change them. Each time he opens his mouth he after all addresses not only the 14 percent of humanity who are Catholics, but the remaining 86 percent as well.
Francis is the first pope from the New World of the Americas, and one of the few from the Third World where—thanks to the “empire of money” that he implied during the October 28, 2014 Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Popular Movements rules the global order—poverty, mass misery and violence define the lives of billions.
In that same Meeting, the Pope told the social activists in attendance to wage a struggle against the structural causes of poverty and inequality, as well as the lack of work, land and shelter, and the denial of social and labor rights. Assuring the activists of his support, their struggle, he declared, must develop a revolutionary program derived from the Gospels that would confront the “empire of money.”
That empire, and the economic system it protects, “must make war in order to survive,” he said. If indeed the 20th century was a century of war as a consequence of the greed that drives that system, so is the 21st developing into another era of armed conflict as the countries contending for control of oil and other resources re-divide the world among themselves.
The Pope’s declaration was notable for its shunning the usual Catholic prescription for change as beginning with the individual, and for instead focusing on the economic, political and social causes of poverty rooted in the dominant structures that in much of the planet decide how the fruits of production are distributed—and which are the primary driving forces of war, plunder, and exploitation.
In much of the world, specially the Third World, that system denies millions their most basic rights. Catholic social teaching, for example, defines “land, shelter and work” as “sacred rights,” said the Pope. But, he noted, “if I speak of this some people conclude that the Pope is a communist”—recalling how, in the Philippines and elsewhere, similar demands often provoke the same condemnation.
Of special relevance to Filipinos was his declaration that urban planning must be based on the “authentic and respectful integration” of different communities. He also criticized real estate developers who demolish the “poor settlements” in the cities of underdeveloped, or, as political correctness would have it, “developing” countries.
The Philippines belongs in the latter category of countries. But uniquely in Asia, the Philippines is also predominantly Catholic, as well as a country where poverty has persisted for centuries.
Some critics see a connection among these truths. The Catholic Church was the handmaiden of colonialism during the 300 years when Spain ruled the islands, and mainly still serves as the partner in crime of imperialist interests by, among other devices, urging the faithful to bear their sufferings under the neo-colonial order rather than to do anything about it—by in fact condemning resistance to oppression as well as any attempt to radically transform society.
Will the Pope, once confronted by the poverty in this country, also speak out against its structural causes, and call upon the faithful to wage a struggle against the political, economic and social structures that for centuries has condemned millions to lives of desperation? Will he as well note that the struggle against poverty and injustice—against the lack of work and shelter, the continuing violation of human rights and the violence that has ruled this country for centuries that’s currently under the protection of the “empire of money” and its local henchmen—requires the same revolutionary program that he declared last October was needed to combat the “empire of money”?
Beyond declaring the Church’s openness to other faiths, or its revising its stance on LGBTs from one of condemnation to understanding and support, is the equally crucial imperative for it to declare, in this, the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, that poverty and inequality are rooted in the dominance over the political structure of a handful of families with the support of the empire of greed that’s behind the poverty, the conflicts and the violence that characterize much of the contemporary world. Such a declaration would finally put the Church—now headed by a Pope from the Third World—firmly on the side of the people rather than against them, as in much of Philippine history it has been.
First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of Jeffrey Bruno.