How is one to take the action of churchmen who hold positions of authority when, from the pulpit or through official pronouncements, they threaten politicians who support positions not to their liking with a church organized campaign against them in the 2010 elections? This can happen, for instance, against legislators who support the House Bill 5043, commonly known as the Reproductive Health Bill (RH Bill).
As election time approaches, legislators or potential legislators who support the Bill, may find themselves or will find themselves threatened by what might be called a “Catholic vote” – even if I myself do not believe that such a phenomenon exists.
There are two legitimate ways of looking at pressure from churchmen in the context of the House Bill 5043.
The first is the constitutional approach. The pressure position taken by some churchmen is supported by their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion and freedom of expression. They have every right to propagate what they believe to be morally correct, even if they might be wrong. I have always maintained that when a person becomes a cleric or a bishop, he does not thereby surrender his rights as a Filipino citizen. He even retains his right to make a fool of himself.
Constitutionally, I would even defend their right to pressure legislators who do not agree to follow their dictates under threat of loss of votes. The scope of allowable political persuasion is broad enough to accommodate tactics short of violation of the Penal Code or of the penal provisions of the Election Code. Such behavior would be less objectionable than earlier church tactics such as the burning of heretics at the stake. But the two methods are relatives.
As a churchman myself living ages away from the culture of the Middle Ages, I would offer arguments why a churchman should not use the pressure approach. Let me summarize my reasons. I have also borrowed some points made by a colleague of mine who has written more extensively about the subject.
First, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in their Second Plenary Council warned pastors that “to take active part in partisan politics, in the wheeling and dealing it entails, would tend to weaken their teaching authority and destroy the unity they represent and protect.” And as one high ranking official has also said, to dictate to parishioners whom to vote for or not vote for is “as bad as buying their votes.”
Unfortunately, in 2007, the CBCP, while unwilling as a body to endorse or disapprove national candidates, expressed its willingness to see individual bishops endorse or denounce candidates for locally elected positions.
When a bishop does this from his position of authority and in official pronouncements, the inevitable conclusion that can be drawn is that the act is a partisan political intervention by the Church as an institution. This goes in the opposite direction of the 1998 CBCP Catechism on Church and Politics which denied the existence of a “Catholic vote.” One cannot fail to see that a bishop-initiated campaign against a political candidate effectively suggests what a Catholic vote should be. Such a campaign would tend to undermine episcopal teaching authority and destroy the unity it professes to represent and protect.
Another point I would make is that members of the laity and of the voting public are not mindless automatons. They are intelligent beings who under God are governed by the primacy of conscience. Indeed, the Church has a duty to help a person form his or her conscience when choosing among electoral candidates; but helping him or her to form conscience is different from imposing on a person the choice of whom to vote for. Recently, for instance, when in Charleston South Carolina a pastor told his parishioners that any person who votes for Obama should go to confession before receiving communion, he was rebuked by his own bishop.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has put it succinctly. It declared that "the Church's Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding ‘contingent questions.’ Instead, it intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.”
Clearly, House Bill 5043 is a very controversial piece of legislation involving “contingent questions.” Having studied it myself, I find myself unable to agree or disagree with it totally. It is a mixed bag, and even if it becomes law, controversy will continue to swirl around it. I would leave it to the conscience of individual legislators and voters how they should deal with the “contingent question” arising from the Bill.
Finally, the use of pressure on voters, even for religious reasons, is not much different from shot-gun or money politics. When religious leaders use pressure politics, they serve to perpetuate bad politics. There is now a loud clamor for an end to traditional politics. Pressure politics is traditional politics.
When the smoke of political battles have cleared, an important task will be unification and cooperation in the promotion of the general welfare. Those who have aligned themselves with the practitioners of pressure politics will find themselves diminished in their capacity to contribute to the task. It would be unfortunate if bishops who have an important role to play in the progress of our country will find themselves sidelined because, unable or unwilling to debate, they have chosen to dictate instead.
23 November 2009