Commentary : Bishops repudiated
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: January 13, 2009
When Congress voted to extend the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) but remove its teeth, namely, the power to coerce landlords to surrender land, the farmers outside the House of Representatives complex knew they had lost badly. Leonardo Montemayor, a former member of the House and official of the Federation of Free Farmers, said, “The defeat marked the end of all the dreams of all the farmers.”
The Catholic bishops also lost. Never before had they invested so much effort in a cause of the poor, only to see their teaching authority and political influence overwhelmingly repudiated by Congress.
The bishops had done as much as could reasonably be expected in support of the farmers. Some 70 bishops signed a statement backing the extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with reforms. On the eve of the vote Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo and Bishop Broderick Pabillo wrote again asking Congress to extend the CARP with reforms. Eight bishops joined the farmers’ hunger strike.
I don’t think people who were there will soon forget Cardinal Rosales sitting in a makeshift tent outside the House complex with the defeated farmers and hunger strikers and looking just as sad and weary as they were.
The overwhelming rejection by Congress of land reform, which is central to the Church’s social teachings, must trouble the bishops and they may well wonder what will happen to similar causes they champion, such as, human reproduction, if they are put to a vote.
What will the bishops do? Will they withdraw from such controversial issues as land reform or will they push ahead? If they abandon or lessen their engagement in the human rights struggle, they will leave the poor without a dependable ally in times of trouble. If they push ahead, they may very well fail again. However, it is also possible that they and everyone else involved in the struggle for human rights may learn from the recent sad experience and find more effective ways to achieve their goals.
It is clear that solutions to the major social problems require a political consensus in favor of the poor among the members of Congress. Legislators listen to those who can help them in the next election. The bishops and all human rights advocates can play a vital role in gathering people, helping them to organize to solve their problems, to think clearly at election time, and to do this in a coordinated way throughout the country.
How in the concrete can the bishops help create this new movement among the people?
There are degrees of involvement possible. The first degree, in which the Catholic Church is a main actor and decision maker, can be in the formation of the Basic Christian Communities or Basic Ecclesial Community, as the Brazil Church did in the 1970s and 1980s.
The foundations of Partidos Trabalhadores (PT), Lula da Silva’s party in Brazil, we were informed by some of its founding members, lie in the Basic Christian Community (BCC movement of the 1960s to 1970s. Almost all the mass membership of the PT, whatever their political stripe, were members of the movement. The organizing culture of the PT was, therefore, basically that of BCCs which stressed listening, respect for others and compromise, rather than ideological hard lining. It helped, we were told, that the senior leftist leaders and intellectuals were in prison. There were tens of thousands of BCCs in Brazil in those years. Can the Philippine Church expand the number of its BECs, deepen their appreciation of human rights issues and the need to link with other groups in some form of national action, especially during elections?
The second degree of involvement for the Church is in large secular movements, such as, organizations of the farmers. The Church can support these groups, but it is not in charge of them. The Federation of Free Farmers was such a group. The main education activity for the FFF was a 30-day live-in seminar, which was most often given with the help of the priest chaplains, and centered on the Church’s social teaching. On the eve of martial law, the FFF claimed 300,000 members. The movement had its flaws, but no other group has reached such a membership.
The Church may also help groups not so clearly linked with the Church. Usually such groups are required by the Church to be non-violent and democratic.
The third degree of involvement is in the support of particular candidates and parties. This step may be farthest from the Church’s normal guidelines. Ordinarily the Church is advised to avoid partisan politics. However, desperate times call for desperate solutions. Maybe the Church is called to be more active in a partisan fashion, since that may be one good way to get the country established once again on the road to justice and prosperity.
Nandy Pacheco and Eric Manalang of the political party Ang Kapatiran [The Brotherhood] have just published Passport to a New Philippines, which explains their party’s goals and assumptions. Many bishops quietly support the party. Ang Kapatiran can be one ally of the bishops if they decide to be more politically involved. Ang Kapatiran believes strongly in the importance of the lay people in political matters and in the necessity for a party platform that expresses exactly what the group stands for.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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