With eight out of every ten Filipinos baptized Catholics, and churches nationwide packed for Sunday Mass, the visiting Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church cannot but have immense impact on Philippine politics.
The first papal journey to the country by Blessed Paul VI in November 1970 was marred by the assassination attempt by knife-wielding Brazilan painter Benjamin Mendoza. Disguised as a priest, the assailant attacked soon after the Pope disembarked from the Alitalia plane to be greeted by then-President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda.
That appalling assault, foiled by bodyguards, shocked Filipinos and probably helped make them more willing to accept martial law less than two years later. Moreover, the event and the rest of the visit did not disturb the longstanding amity between the government and the hierarchy headed by conservative then-Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos, the first Filipino Prince of the Church.
Fast-forward to the 1981 visit of Pope Saint John Paul II. It is widely acknowledged that his public criticism of then-President Ferdinand Marcos’s repression contributed, if not initiated its decline and eventual demise. To be sure, the regime also suffered from rising debt and corruption, and falling exports and growth, and the Aquino assassination sparked the mass protests that eventually unseated him.
But the Vicar of Christ’s moral admonition, as many Filipino Catholics saw it, was nothing less than the withdrawal of heaven’s blessing on the dictatorship, if it ever enjoyed it. That eroded its legitimacy almost as much as the massive fraud in the 1986 snap presidential elections, which triggered the EDSA People Power Revolution.
In contrast to the 1981 trip, John Paul II’s visit in 1995 had almost no impact on domestic politics. Then—President Fidel Ramos enjoyed broad support for reforming and revving up the economy, and a Church event, World Youth Day, took center stage in the papal itinerary.
Francis’s Philippine agenda
So what domestic political agenda and effect might the visit of Pope Francis have? Nothing to worry Malacañang, barring a major security fiasco, as we will see.
Going by his main international advocacies, peace and interfaith dialogue would probably rank at or near the top in his statements later today. Indeed, at the New Year Vin d’Honneur in Malacañang this past Monday, no less than the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Guiseppe Pinto, the Vatican ambassador and dean of the diplomatic corps, expressed support for the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Nuncio did urge that “consultation as well as an honest and transparent dialogue among stakeholders will facilitate a positive outcome of the legislative work” on the Bangsamoro Basic Law creating a new autonomous government under the government—MILF pact. But the overriding quest of peace is laudable.
Archbishop Pinto also cited the government’s “commitment … to restore a dignified life to the people affected by calamities.” With the visit to Yolanda victims taking up a full day in Pope Francis’ four-day swing, he may also offer strong support and encouragement for disaster recovery efforts.
Both these themes, if taken up by the Holy Father in these terms, would give a lift to the administration. And don’t expect even a mild reprimand on the Reproductive Health Law. Certainly not from a Pope who, in his first year of rule, lamented what he considered excessive focus by certain Church sectors on the contraception issue.
Indeed, one wonders whether Francis might reiterate in so many words his 2013 admonition against reducing the Church’s position on the family to contraception. Besides the official Palace welcome, another major event for a pronouncement on sexuality issues is the Pontiff’s Friday afternoon meeting with families at the SM Arena.
Poverty, corruption and capitalism
If RH would be spared critique, would Francis come out strong on his other social advocacies against poverty, inequity, corruption and exploitative capitalism?
Last October, the Supreme Pontiff minced no words in attacking sleaze. He told the International Association of Penal Law: “Corruption is an evil greater than sin. More than forgiveness, this evil needs to be cured.” Coming from a Pope who espouses the mercy of God above all doctrines, the call to stop corruption rather than just forgiving it, constitutes a pretty powerful attack on the scourge.
Francis linked graft to the other great social sin he has repeatedly excoriated: “The scandalous accumulation of global wealth is possible because of the connivance of those with strong powers who are responsible for public affairs. The corrupt one does not perceive his own corruption. It is a little like what happens with bad breath: Someone who has it hardly ever realizes it; other people notice and have to tell him.”
However, don’t expect the visitor from the Vatican to lambast the trebling of pork barrel, smuggling and illicit gambling under his host’s rule. Despite solid evidence of Aquino-era sleaze, including his staunch defense of anomalous allies and associates, domestic and international media still hold fast to the Tuwid na Daan myth. So Archbishop Pinto won’t let the Holy Father contradict that prevailing narrative.
But neither will Francis mouth the administration line that it is probing and prosecuting sleaze without fear or favor, especially with the Catholic Bishops, Conference of the Philippines itself having criticized the government for “selective prosecution” of pork barrel irregularities.
More than national politicking, however, there is a geopolitical reason for His Holiness to spare his host any destabilizing comments: China. As seen in his decision last December not to meet with the Dalai Lama, Francis is careful to avoid any perception that the Catholic Church would undermine Chinese rulers, in the hope that their treatment of Christians would improve.
Being amicable in Manila would help show Beijing that Catholicism should not be feared and suppressed.