Fools for Christ
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 15, 2019 - 12:00am

The polling firms are suffering from a credibility problem in this election season, and it’s raising questions even on the results of its previous surveys centering on issues and public approval of government officials and agencies.

I haven’t heard anyone, however, questioning the plunge last year in the survey ratings of President Duterte after he called God “stupid.”

These days it’s no longer God being called stupid, but the shepherds of the Catholic flock – for entering a vocation, Duterte said, that bars them from marrying.

Whether the sustained tirades against the Catholic clergy will affect Duterte’s approval ratings may be difficult to measure in this season of distrust of surveys.

What worries the clergy is that the President’s verbal attacks could be inspiring death threats that might encourage even physical attacks on priests and bishops.

With three priests murdered so far since December 2017, one of them right inside a chapel as he was about to celebrate mass, the fears are not unfounded. This week, three priests even took the unusual step of calling a press conference to narrate the death threats they say they have been receiving.

Malacañang has urged the clergy to report any threats to law enforcement agencies so these can be acted upon. The clergy should heed the suggestion, even if it’s tough to trace the sources of threats sent by text messages. If the threat is real, it could be easier for lawmen to prevent an actual violent attack. Reporting might not be an exercise in futility; Oscar Albayalde strikes me as a decent Philippine National Police chief. Albayalde can’t tell Duterte to shut up, but the PNP can gather intel to pinpoint possible sources of the threats.

*      *      *

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, once a formidable power bloc in this country, has been subdued in its response to Duterte’s insults. Perhaps with Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles as CBCP head, the bishops are pursuing a policy of critical collaboration with the Duterte administration, with emphasis on collaboration – the same approach taken by the Church in the early days of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos.

Or perhaps the CBCP is still smarting from the assault launched by the president – not Rodrigo Duterte, but Noynoy Aquino, the reproductive health law champion who implicated the bishops in the Pajero corruption scandal under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

What has truly bloodied the Catholic Church, of course, is the continuing sex scandal that this week sent a cardinal to prison in Australia.

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Despite a book on similar scandals in the Philippines, however, the Catholic faith in this country so far seems unshaken, if we are to go by participation in Church events such as the annual Black Nazarene procession and observance of the rituals of the faith. 

Maybe the Filipino faithful can separate religious beliefs from the human frailties of the messengers of God. Or maybe Filipinos are more forgiving.

“We know how strong the faith is of the Filipino people,” Father Aris Sison told “The Chiefs” this week on Cignal TV’s One News.

Sison, parish priest of Saint John Paul II parish in Eastwood City, used to be spokesman for Jaime Cardinal Sin. The Catholic Church wielded the greatest political power in this country when the outspoken Sin was the archbishop of Manila.

Today, it looks like the Church has swung to the opposite end. Sison corrects this impression. They may not have the passionate persona of a Cardinal Sin, but the Catholic clergy will be giving guidance to the faithful in the upcoming elections to help them make informed choices.

Priests and bishops will be encouraging the faithful to pick candidates – and not necessarily just Catholic bets, Sison stressed – who value God, the right to life, truth and honesty.

The shepherds of the Church, Sison told us, have three duties: prophetic, priestly, and the moral issues of governance.

“If there is something going wrong, we are duty-bound to speak out… whether you like it or not,” he said.

What are the moral issues? Human rights including extrajudicial killings; the welfare of women, children and the poor; corruption. “We will speak out,” Sison said.

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Does he consider himself “stupid” for entering the priesthood?

“We are fools for Christ… that’s why our calling is a vocation,” Sison replied with a smile. “Christ in the eyes of the world was a fool.”

Sison doesn’t think allowing priests to marry is the answer to the sex scandals, saying no one has been able to make “a clear connection” between the problem and priestly celibacy. Marriage for priests? “That will not happen,” he said emphatically. “Not in our lifetime.”

Sison admits feeling that the Catholic faith is being singled out among all the religions in the country for Duterte’s insults – both the clergy and Church doctrine.  

“In a way, yes, we are being persecuted,” Sison said.

He emphasized, however, that this Church “thrives” in persecution.

“It is when we have martyrs that the Church grows. So we are not afraid,” Sison told us. “When we are being persecuted, then thanks be to God, because it means we are doing what we are intended to do.”

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