Billboard Squabble

by Juan L. Mercado


Bacolod’s  Catholic diocese is clashing with Commission on Elections over display of “Patay/Buhay” tarpulins on it’s cathedral.  The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 19 on a petition to scrap Comelec rules on tarp  size,  display, etc. 

Media dubs this the “Tarp War”. It’s about who should win —  or be trashed — in  2013 senatorial elections. That’d  hinge on  how  they voted  on  the Reproductive Health Law (RA 10354).

Every Filipino is free to speak. That includes ministers or priests. Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, however, can not  speak for 71 other dioceses.

Certainly not for Manila archdiocese led by Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.  He is one of 114 cardinals who’ll vote in  March’s conclave. Tagle is listed among “papabiles”, by Vatican observers. These are men who could be elected this month as the 257th successor to Peter.

“The sufferings of people and difficult questions they ask are an invitation to be in solidarity with them, not to pretend we have all the solutions,” Tagle  told the last Synod. “The Church should contribute in the public square. But we in Asia are particular about the mode.. You may say the right things. But people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution…”

Like Bacolod?  Yes, like Bacolod, wrote Ateneo de Davao’s Joel Tabora SJ in his blog: “Team Patay/Team Buhay – Unconscionable.”  He recalls an elderly lady interviewed on TV in front of Bacolod’s tarpaulin.  “I’m old enough to decide for myself”, she declared.

“Me too,” says Fr. Tabora. Hardliners bluster that the ‘Catholic vote’ will “set RH advocates “packing to the eternal consequences of your disobedience.” They lost the battle against the RH bill. Now, they’d wage a war to win  the  elections?.  This “silly in its arrogance. Worse, it is harmful to the Gospel”.

Look at election history, suggests San Carlos Major seminary’s dean of studies  Fr. Ramon Echica.  Catholics never voted as a bloc. “The implicit premise of hardliners is  the single issue facing us is reproductive health.”  This is myopic.  It  whittles Catholic morality into one issue. But RA 10354 is not the sole determinant of one’s Catholicity.

`Hardliners are silent on issues to which Catholic moral principles should  be applied”, from poverty alleviation, land reform to peace in Mindanao, Echica notes in his  paper “Catholic Vote, Anyone?”  Indeed, the litmus test is not whether one voted for or against the RH bill,  Fr. Tabora adds. But did you reach out for the hungry, sick, imprisoned and homeless?.

All  that sends us, hurtling through a time tunnel, to Bacolod City on Friday 20, 1981. There, Pope John Paul II spoke to “landowners and workers (sacadas) of sugar cane plantations.

“It is not admissible to use this gift (of land) in such a manner that the benefits it produces serve only a limited number of people, while the the vast majority are excluded from  benefits which the land yields,” John Paul stressed: “(Heed) the moral imperative of contributing to a decent standard of living and to working conditions which make it possible for either duma-ans, sacadas or industrial workers…to  live a life that is truly human…”  

Do Bishop Vicente Navarra and co-workers share their crusading zeal for tarpulins equally for sacadas of 2013?  It’d  help clear the air if they show this is the case.

In a plural society, like the Philippines,  the Church proposes, but  Congress disposes, Tabora notes. RA 10354 was not  written so Catholics will follow teachings of their church. It is a law legislated for the common good.

“RA 10354 clearly proscribes abortion. It respects the conscience of Catholic government workers. It undertakes to fund and promote natural family planning, Major changes were introduced because of Catholic influence. It is grossly unjust to assert now that it is unconscionable for Catholics to vote for these legislators.”

After Congress passed the RH bill, a pastoral letter labeled those who voted “nay” as heroes. “Is a politician who plundered the nation’s coffers but who is against use of condoms, deserving of our vote?”, Fr Echia asked  “Does this mean that Imelda, who has not shown any remorse for the conjugal dictatorship, is a hero?”

Conscience  should  be the ultimate norm.  Threats of a Catholic backlash does not address the conscience of  politicians. Instead, it appeals to political survival, “not to the depth of values that the Church embraces.” The threat has consequences.

‘The Bacolod tarps undercut credibility of the Church as a neutral election watchdog, won by decades of  service, both Tabora and Echica caution. The Bacolod billboard  campaigns for or against some candidates.  The Church can not eat her cake and have it too.

If the church opts for the role of power broker, it will compromise it’s prophetic role, fret Echia and Tabora  Can bishops bravely denounce abuses of officials they helped catapult to power? “When the politically powerful believe they owe their position to the church and when the hierarchy thinks secular rulers are  indebted to it, the result can be an unholy alliance. That has often proved  tragic to the Church.

“The key player here is the laity,” Fr. Tabora adds.  After Vatican II, “The paradigm-shifted insight into God’s presence in a plural society.  Imposition of values by the church or society  will be resisted.  “Listening will have to be two-way, and discernment shared.

So, who is spooked by the Catholic vote, Bacolold style? “I am, Fr. Echica writes. “I am afraid of its impact on the Church whose servant I am.”


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