“Critical collaboration” was how then Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin labeled his relationship with the 1972-86 martial law regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. The Catholic Church was anything but comfortable with the arrests, disappearances, threats and violence against opponents. Also reprehensible were cronyism, media muzzling, and mega-corruption.
So how should the Catholic hierarchy deal with the democratically elected, hugely popular President Benigno Aquino 3rd now that he seems to be veering toward strongman rule unchecked and unbalanced by co-opted co-equal branches and independent constitutional bodies headed or dominated by his appointees?
That is now outspoken Archbishop Oscar Cruz sees the current administration. “With such a development [Aquino family loyalist Franklin Drilon’s impending election as Senate President], who says there is no virtual dictatorship?” asks the former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines on the CBCP website. “The people better watch out of dictatorial moves of Malacañang and [their]faithful followers”
Cruz fears the Senate would soon join with the pro-Aquino House of Representatives, pork-barreled into submission since 2010, and the Judiciary under Aquino’s chosen Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. She owes him big not only for ousting her predecessor, but also for pole-vaulting her above more senior and more accomplished justices, despite her minimal court record and negative psychological assessment.
The archbishop emeritus of Dagupan, Pangasinan, first criticized the administration just a month into Aquino’s term, accusing the President’s shooting buddy, then Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno, of receiving jueteng payoffs along with then Philippine National Police Chief Jesus Versoza. Puno resigned last year over his actions after the death of Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who had been investigating anomalous PNP firearms bidding (the probe has since been forgotten).
Now, Cruz warns that Aquino could use Congress to amend the Constitution despite his constant opposition to charter change. His fellow prelate, Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, who used to be military chaplain, pointed to the possible return of American air and naval bases, which would require charter change.
Besides control of Congress, Aquino is seen as able to influence the conduct of elections—crucial in getting constitutional amendments ratified. His former poll lawyer, Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr., was widely criticized for dispensing with legally mandated safeguards in last month’s automated polls, proclaiming winners on the dubious basis of partial results, and dismissing concerns over long-delayed results from a quarter of vote counting machines.
Also central to Aquino’s clout is the open support of top newspapers and the leading broadcast network. Thus, media no longer give sustained coverage to major administration anomalies like rampant smuggling, the tens of billions in questionable government transactions cited by the Commission on Audit, and the forgotten probes into the billion-peso PNP firearms bidding and the Mindanao megafloods (remember them?). With this kind of friendly coverage, why won’t Aquino’s ratings stay high?
Speaking of ratings, opinion survey entities are also careful not to poll big issues unfavorable to the President. For instance, when his work ethic was under scrutiny, there was no survey on the most hard-working Chief Executive, unlike the most-corrupt-president survey done by Pulse Asia, majority-owned by the President’s Cojuangco family, at the height of the ZTE controversy in 2007.
Nor were there surveys done on distributing Hacienda Luisita, postponing elections in Muslim Mindanao, Palace statements and inaction on the Sabah incursion, and the handling of anomalies involving presidential friends Puno, gaming czar Cristino Naguiat Jr., Land Transportation Office head Virginia Torres, Political Adviser Ronald Llamas, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa.
In the face of a President who holds sway over Congress, courts, media, opinion polls, and even major foreign powers (having granted America’s wish for increased military presence in the country), what is the Church to do? Three things.
First and foremost has to be enlivening faith and prayer. Heaven shall overcome every earthly power in His time, even if it takes the two decades of Marcos rule, the three decades of Suharto, or the half-century of Myanmar’s military junta. Hence, the National Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on June 8 is perhaps the most crucial move of the Philippine Church in addressing national concerns.
Notably, back in 1985, the Philippines was the only nation to follow then-Pope John Paul II’s call to dedicate that year to Mary. In December 2005, the end of the Marian Year, dictator Ferdinand Marcos called a snap election to address mounting unrest over the killing of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and the resulting economic crisis. Two months later, amid nationwide outrage over wholesale poll fraud, the People Power Revolution ousted Marcos.
The second task for the Church is to seek and spread the truth, especially on issues and events that pro-Aquino media downplay or downright ignore. Foremost among them is the conduct of automated elections. Over the past year, the CBCP has rightly joined election watchdogs in raising concerns with the arrogant Brillantes.
Now, this Church-civil society alliance must do its own probe, complete with offers of Vatican political asylum for whistle blowers with hard evidence, to get to the bottom of how exactly the 2010 and 2013 polls were conducted. If there is credible evidence of massive and systematic cheating, then the Church must lead a campaign to junk the current Precinct Count Optical Scan system in favor of manual counting with online posting of scanned election returns for future polls, especially the 2016 elections.
Third, the Church must proactively take up the cudgels for sectors and individuals whose rights and interests are unfairly and unlawfully undermined by the Aquino regime. Start with the rightful agrarian beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita, who look set to be denied their land by stalling transfers till land reform lapses in less than a year. Plainly, people see that the administration can oppress and violate whom they choose with impunity, then pretty soon, most Filipinos will submit, as most of us did to Marcos.
Faith and prayer, truth and justice: let these be the Church’s guiding tenets in dealing with the Aquino government. After all, that was how the nation and the faithful won against the autocrats of the past.