Commentary : If the bishops wrote to the poor
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: July 21, 2008
MANILA, Philippines - There has been a long debate in the church over its social teaching, not so much with the content, the “what” of the teaching, but about the most effective way to get it implemented, the “how” of the matter.
It is a matter of audiences. Ordinarily the papal encyclicals and the letters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines address the government and influential private citizens, asking them to protect workers’ rights, implement land reform or extend it, stop illegal forced evictions, ban trawlers from offshore waters and take care of other problems. This approach sees the elite as the agents of change.
Another audience for the letters and encyclicals might be the workers, farmers, urban poor and fishermen of the world and the Philippines. The hierarchy might explain the Church’s teaching as it relates to the poor sectors, explain their human rights and urge them to take organized action to achieve their rights and reform the situation. This approach is far rarer than the first, though some popes, including Pope John Paul II, had encouraged workers to act through their unions. Think of Poland’s Solidarity, for example. This approach sees the poor as the agents of change. In the end it’s a matter of emphasis: both government and the organized poor are needed.
It wouldn’t be surprising if some of our bishops began to wonder if it is useful any longer to keep appealing to Philippine government leaders and the powerful to take up reform. The bishops over the years have given more support to land reform than any other social problem, and yet they can’t even get a very ordinary law extended. The Philippines is the first democracy to drop its land reform program before it is finished.
Maybe, the bishops will soon come to believe it is more useful to talk directly to the poor than to continue engaging with officials who politely nod in agreement with the Church’s suggestions and then continue with business as usual. In the concrete situation existing in the country with the officials and growing problems the people face, it seems the right time to speak to the poor.
If they ever write such a letter it might go like this:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our past letters on social problems don’t seem to have done much good. Many times, for example, we appealed to our leaders for effective land reform, but to no avail. Congress failed to extend it. We’ve talked of workers’ problems, mining and the problems tribal people face, but those letters, too, have had little effect. It’s time to talk directly to you.
Before going further, we wish to ask about something that puzzles us and many other people, namely, why are you so patient? There are food and oil price riots in many countries; in South Korea 50,000 people go into the streets each night to protest the importation of American beef, yet here in the Philippines, which is as poor and as hard hit as any other country by the soaring prices, there seems to be only passive acceptance. This is not our history. Look at the peasant uprisings of the past, look at Edsa I. What has caused this recent passivity?
Have you lost hope in life and the possibility of change? Have you lost faith in government, the elite, the Church? We can imagine your pain with the way things have become worse and worse, but don’t give up for the sake of your children and for the good of the whole country.
What is your perception of the Church? Do you feel it is on your side in the justice struggles that will fashion the Philippines of tomorrow? Do you feel you are in the Church of the Poor that we vowed to become at the Second Plenary Council in 1991? We hope so and we sincerely hope you haven’t lost your willingness to “hunger and thirst for justice.” You well know that no major social change will come about in our country without organized popular pressure from below. Also, no serious thrust to become the Church of the Poor will take place unless you push us in that direction.
What will it take to organize this popular pressure from below? To organize farmers into a large democratic, non-violent movement for a truly valuable land reform, for example. How many farmers must be organized? One million? Why not? The Federation of Free Farmers on the eve of the declaration of martial law had some 300,000 members and was growing rapidly. There are many more farmers now and just as much suffering.
We ask the same question of all downtrodden groups—tribal people, fishermen, workers, urban poor, farmers: What will it take to organize yourselves?
We will give whatever is in our power to give in terms of moral support, funds and training resources. We will recruit idealistic young people and professionals to work alongside you. We will lobby for you as we always have, and we will not hesitate to break with the powerful who resist your efforts to secure your human rights. We will preach the Gospel in the liberating way Jesus did in Luke 4:18-19: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed and to proclaim the Lord’s year of mercy.”
May the Lord bless all of us.
Denis Murphy works with Urban Poor Associates. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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