First of Two Parts
As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good. … The Bishops of the Philippines have asked that this year be set aside as the “Year of the Poor.” I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community.
— Pope Francis’s statement at Malacañang, January 16, 2015
When the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines holds its plenary meeting on July 3-6, it is respectfully but urgently suggested that it consider doing more to advance integrity, justice, and the upliftment of the poor than just issuing pastoral letters. There is need for the CBCP to lead a national movement for good governance.
Despite widespread public revulsion against corruption, there is, in fact, no nationwide organization or campaign to effectively fight it. In August 2013, the pork barrel scandal sparked demonstrations in key cities. But that anti-graft protest has turned out to be ningas kugon, fading after a flashy start.
As CBCP President and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas lamented recently, the country remains in the grip of corrupt politicians, who look set to mobilize resources, connections, and manpower for election victory in 2016 and more misgovernance and sleaze in years to come.
Filipinos are again looking for Mr. or Ms. Upright to back for the presidency. But if there is any lesson to be learned in the rule of purportedly honest reformer President Benigno Aquino 3rd, it is the futility of expecting politicians to clean up their ranks and their act.
This article presents the argument for religious leaders to take the lead in reforming governance, and in the second part, outlines three integrity initiatives set out in past columns for the people to undertake with the guidance and support of major religions and other key sectors.
Politicians will not clean up their ranks
Aquino’s rule amply demonstrates how even a leader with a squeeky-clean image can horribly fail. Under him, corruption is worse than ever.
Smuggling leapt five-fold to $19 billion a year and, by Aquino’s own count, lost P200 billion in revenues and allowed guns and drugs to gush into the country. Pork barrel trebled to over P20 billion a year, with allied legislators spared from the selective prosecution jailing political rivals.
Congress has repeatedly been bribed to impeach Palace targets and to vote for its pet legislation, including the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law. And legislators readily yielded their power of the purse in the P150-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program, the biggest malversation scheme in our history.
In the avalanche of dirty money, the people are being crushed. Dubious contracts have put Metro Rail Transit commuters at daily risk and great inconvenience, and made car owners pay for license plates with less than the stipulated features.
Even soldiers and police risking their lives for the country are not spared from unsavory deals, with a billion-peso military helicopter purchase gone bad, and the overpriced bidding for police rifles, which Aquino himself ordered investigated, swept under the rug.
Now, the administration camp is seeking a winning standard bearer, ostensibly to carry on their claimed reforms, but in truth, to continue shielding them from probes and charges for their excesses. And give them uninterrupted access to state resources, now at unprecedented levels, including a national budget topping P3 trillion for 2016.
Even if the Palace “presidentiable” loses next year, many of the corrupt would simply switch sides to the winning camp, as they had done in past transfers of power. And having seen what an audacious Chief Executive with little regard for law has done with Congress and media backing, his successor may well do the same or worse.
The bishops must lead the people
Plainly, if the nation is to have any chance of reforming governance, the people themselves must mobilize and organize to support the forces of integrity and expose and fight sleaze. And only the CBCP has the nationwide reach, clout and credibility to lead this campaign.
In past nationwide movements for change, the Catholic Church was crucial. The late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin led the two People Power uprisings. Year after year, Filipinos look to the CBCP for guidance on national issues. Even in the Philippine Revolution against Spain, Filipino clergy helped lead and shape the people’s struggle.
In the Philippine Trust Index surveys, religious leaders enjoy the highest rating among other public figures, with three out of every four Filipinos trusting them. Plus: most voters would heed the candidate endorsements made by their local clergy.
Besides wide public trust and support, the Catholic Church is also perhaps the only national organization able to resist government and political pressure. It did so under martial law, when other entities were cowed, co-opted or crushed, including media.
In pondering this proposal for the Church to lead a national reform movement, not a few in the hierarchy, the clergy and the laity would rightly worry that direct involvement in political issues may distract from spiritual activities.
There is also legitimate concern that the Church’s moral authority may suffer from the messiness of political action. Cardinal Sin lost stature when he endorsed losing presidential candidates and opposed winning ones in 1992 and 1998.
Certainly, in leading a national reform movement, the Church must exercise extreme care. But if it declines to lead, then it would allow the politicians to again take control and perpetuate their past ways.
To do so in the Year of the Poor would betray not just the needy and powerless most hurt by misgovernance. It would also run counter to the Holy Father’s exhortation opening this article.
We pray that our bishops would not let that happen.
(The last part on Thursday will present reform initiatives for the CBCP to consider.)