Bishops playing State chessboard
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc () - February 1, 2006 - 12:00am
That chess has strong bishops siding with rival kings says a lot about Church history. But the game has evolved since 600 AD into just a brain match with no religious undertones, while the Church has withdrawn from partisanship. Or has it? Last Sunday the 120-member Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued two pastoral statements on the great political and economic issues of the day. Judging by their tenor, the bishops are angling to be players anew on the chessboard of State affairs.

The first letter, mainly on the "Hello Garci" storm, was widely hailed. The wiretapped chats of Gloria Arroyo with Comelec’s Virgilio Garcillano during the 2004 counting not only has split the land but also eroded moral values. The bishops rooted the division on the people’s thwarted search for answers about potential election rigging. Twitted were both sides of the political seesaw: the Administration for "evasion and obstruction", and the Opposition for "using the search for truth as a means of furthering political ambition." Any impeachment is a political exercise, and Congress saved Arroyo from it not with strength of evidence but via partisan lines. Her foes were partly to blame, for employing impeachment only as an afterthought, when their marches to hoot her out of office – and themselves in – fizzled. The political squabbling only left the people distrusting institutions, with many taking to believing that cheating pays or raw ambition is ethical.

The bishops thus called for relentless pursuit of truth once and for all to heal the rift. Arroyo agreed, with her spokesmen advising foes to bring up charges in court. The other side took it as license to renew calls for her resignation – except through coup d’etat or other violent means, which the bishops disapprove.

Beyond the moral facets of the Garci to-do, however, the bishops began to tread on purely political ground. The first paper went on to assail the Comelec, deplore a no-election-in-2007 plan, and sponsor constitutional convention over constituent assembly for Charter change. This is where the faithful also began to deduce a resurgence of Church meddling in politics.

Filipino faith in the Comelec is at all-time low; a recent poll gave it a -27 net trust rating. For, as your writer often states, this is the Comelec that not only produced Garcillano but also wasted P1.3 billion on automation that the Supreme Court had to void because of rigged bidding. This is the same Comelec that frittered away another billion pesos to photograph and fingerprint voters for ID cards that were never printed. Senators and NGOs have asked the commissioners to resign but the latter only smugly retorted, "make us", since they can be removed only by impeachment. People have been egging the lawyerly senators to charge the commissioners in court, for they are not immune like the President. But to have the bishops pounding for the same lawsuit somehow leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The no-election ploy too faces wide resistance. Again, as your writer has stated in and out of the Consultative Commission, it is a blatant conflict of interest for local officials and legislators to espouse as transition Charter. No-election is a wrong first step to genuine political reform, which should be accompanied not by personal gain but by sacrifice that raises people’s hope in a new order. But we can resist no-election without the bishops’ interference in the question. Having them take sides – even if ours – could have direr effects on the country’s future.

The bishops’ espousal of con-con over con-ass is even more partisan. The Constitution does not prefer one over the other, but simply lists both as ways to amend or revise. The matter is still under debate by senators and congressmen, but the holy bishops’ support for one mode makes backers of the other look like little devils. The bishops’ caution against "hasty efforts to change the fundamental law" is also a slap on those who want revisions by a vote of three-fourths of all members of Congress against separate voting. This is a matter that both sides have said should be elevated to the Supreme Court for settlement. Having bishops influencing the work of the last repository of justice could open it to distrust as well.

The second pastoral letter deals with economics. It calls for repeal of the Mining Act, scrapping of all mining permits, and retention of so-called nationalist Constitutional provisions on the economy. More than breaching Pope Benedict XVI’s caveat on Church meddling in politics, this statement pushes the country back to the Inquisition, when the Church used awesome powers to quash ideas that did not jibe with dogma.

In the mid-1500s the astronomer Copernicus wrote seven axioms that upturned beliefs about the universe. Significantly he said that contrary to Church interpretation of Man as center of Creation, the Sun did not revolve around the Earth but the other way around, and so did the planets that were then held to circle Earth. Astronomy at that time was partly astrology, which in turn swayed medicine (alchemy). The Pope ordered Copernicus to suppress his theories. The latter, being a dutiful canon like his brother, and just as his two sisters were nuns, obeyed.

A century later Galileo revived Copernicus’ jottings to advance his newer findings on the heavenly bodies. But he was wary of going public and confessed to Kepler about it. Still fresh in his mind perhaps was how Giordano Bruno, another Copernican, was called by the Inquisitors for his heretical theories, and sentenced to burn at the stake in 1600. Galileo later did publish his work, and was promptly excommunicated. Only 350 years later, in 1992, was he "pardoned" and his theories accepted as valid.

The Church dabbles today on the issue of mining in the belief that it can only be destructive. But that only highlights its past mistakes in science and technology. True, there have been ruinous mining operations, the most prominent of which are the recent poison spill in Albay, the tailings spew in Marinduque, and the soil parching in Palawan. But a Church ban on mining, as the bishops demand, is closing the door to man’s ability to invent a technology for clean mining.

It’s ironic that the bishops sent forth their letters only nine days after the departure of papal nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco. In July last year on the eve of a similar gathering of bishops, Franco had reminded them of Benedict’s displeasure with partisan politics. The result was a pastoral letter that egged both Ms Arroyo and her foes to lead the search for truth in the then-emergent Garci tape. Last Sunday’s follow-up on that un-accomplished search was but necessary. But then, the bishops went overboard and sought to play other chess pieces as well.
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