AFTER exhorting people to “watch and pray” and to engage in “communal action” to get to the truth of recent allegations of what they call as “scandalous and shady government deals that offend the common good and serve only personal, family and group interests,” the country’s Catholic bishops stopped short, as they did in 2005, of calling for the resignation of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Instead, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in a pastoral statement released yesterday, urged Arroyo to take the lead in combating corruption, whose continuing culture “from the top to the bottom of our social and political ladder” it strongly condemned. The bishops’ position somehow echoed the sentiments of former socioeconomic planning secretary Romulo Neri during a Malacañang press conference last week trusting her to lead the whole reform process in government.
The call expectedly elicited sharp criticisms of being “absurd” and “weak” from lawmakers, civil-society organizations, business, religious, and youth groups demanding that Arroyo resign amid revelations in the Senate inquiry implicating her and the First Gentleman in the allegedly anomalous $329-million national broadband network (NBN) project awarded to the Chinese firm, ZTE Corporation.
It, however, drew a welcome sigh of relief from Malacañang. Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye immediately issued a statement thanking the CBCP for “not succumbing to the propaganda of rabid oppositionists who are bent on overturning the gains of our strong economy.”
Nonetheless, the CBCP also called on the Arroyo government to abolish Executive Order 464 so that those “who might have knowledge of any corruption in branches of government, may be free to testify before the appropriate investigating bodies.”
In recommending the abolition of EO 464, the CBCP hopes that this would allow the President’s subordinates to “reveal any corrupt acts, particularly about the ZTE-NBN deal, without being obstructed in their testimony no matter who is involved.”
EO 464 requires Cabinet members, police and military generals, senior national security officials, and “such other officers as may be determined by the President” to first seek her approval before appearing before any inquiry of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Arroyo issued the order last September 2005, as two military officers appeared before the Senate Committee on National Defense which began hearings on the “Hello, Garci” scandal and allegations that the President committed fraud in the May 2004 elections.
EO 464 was immediately branded unconstitutional by lawyers’ groups. The Supreme Court declared the order partially void in April 2006, ruling that Congress may compel the appearance of executive officials before inquiries conducted in aid of legislation. It also denied the government’s appeal to reverse its decision.
Former socioeconomic planning secretary Romulo Neri, however, invoked executive privilege during the Senate hearing on the NBN scandal when asked to elaborate on his conversations with the President.
This is not the first time that the CBCP has been rapped for refusing to demand Arroyo’s resignation. In 2005, in the wake of the “Hello, Garci” scandal, the CBCP could only issue an appeal for sobriety. In 2006, it also said that impeachment was not the means for establishing the truth about allegations of electoral fraud and corruption against Arroyo. That same year, however, the CBCP also spoke out against the government’s charter-change campaign, saying that it was motivated by “self-serving interests.”
The CBCP has also responded to recent issues that hounded the Arroyo government. It asked where the restorative justice was in former President Joseph Estrada’s pardon and called for clemency to be extended to other prisoners. It also supported a Senate inquiry into allegations of cash gifts distributed by the Palace, and recommended personal reformation in response to the continuing scandals that plagued the country.
In its latest pastoral statement, the CBCP also appealed to senators and the Ombudsman to use their powers of inquiry into alleged corruption cases for the common good, and called on the media to be a positive resource of seeking truth and combating corruption.
“We are convinced that the search for truth in the midst of charges and allegations must be determined and relentless, and that the way to truth and integrity must be untrammeled, especially at the present time when questions about the moral ascendancy of the present government are being raised,” the CBCP said.
For groups like the Black and White Movement though, the CBCP has chosen to be “irrelevant.” The group said the bishops’ “diluted and muted statement has made them akin to toothless tigers, fast becoming irrelevant to the times.”
A dismayed Leah Navarro said many groups have responded to the Church’s call to seek the truth and be more vigilant. “We’ve been vigilant for a long time. Many of our groups have been vigilant for the last two and a half years. Ano pa ang gusto nila (What more do they need)?” she said on ABS-CBN’s morning show, Umagang kay Ganda, early today.
But there are others who see the bishops’ call differently. By putting itself as “the cart after the horse,” political analyst Ramon Casiple pointed out that the CBCP has sidestepped its possible moral leadership on the matter of addressing the key action of calling for Arroyo’s resignation. This, he said, sends the message that “it will only act decisively when the people themselves — on their own — acted decisively towards this end.”
Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said the bishops’ statement is a signal to the people that they should not solely rely on the Church to effect change in governance and leadership in the country. “We cannot expect the Church to solve the country’s political problems. We cannot expect the Church to spearhead political reforms. This will have to come from a new breed of political leaders together with a new breed of active citizens. For us in the political sector to expect the Church to lead in reforming our politics is to admit that we ourselves cannot lead. ”
Read the CBCP pastoral statement below:
Seeking the Truth, Restoring Integrity
Beloved People of God:
Greetings in the peace of the Lord!
Today in the midst of restlessness and confusion, we come to you as pastors, for that is our precise role. We do not come as politicians whose vocation it is to order society towards the common good. Our message contributes to the flourishing of a democracy which must not be built only on political formulae.
We face today a crisis of truth and the pervading cancer of corruption. We must seek the truth and we must restore integrity. These are moral values needing spiritual and moral insights.
Therefore, we address this pastoral statement to everyone particularly you our beloved people and in a special way to our political rulers and officials.
We are convinced that the search for truth in the midst of charges and allegations must be determined and relentless, and that the way to truth and integrity must be untrammeled, especially at the present time when questions about the moral ascendancy of the present government are being raised.
For this reason, we strongly:
1. Condemn the continuing culture of corruption from the top to the bottom of our social and political ladder;
2. Urge the President and all the branches of government to take the lead in combating corruption wherever it is found;
3. Recommend the abolition of EO 464 so that those who might have knowledge of any corruption in branches of government, may be free to testify before the appropriate investigating bodies;
4. Ask the President to allow her subordinates to reveal any corrupt acts, particularly about the ZTE-NBN deal, without being obstructed in their testimony no matter who is involved;
5. Appeal to our senators and the ombudsman to use their distinct and different powers of inquiry into alleged corruption cases not for their own interests but for the common good;
6. Call on media to be a positive resource of seeking the truth and combating corruption by objective reporting without bias and partiality, selective and tendentious reporting of facts;
For the long term we reiterate our call for “circles of discernment” at the grassroots level, in our parishes, Basic Ecclesial Communities, recognized lay organizations and movements, religious institutions, schools, seminaries and universities. It is through internal conversion into the maturity of Christ through communal and prayerful discernment and action that the roots of corruption are discovered and destroyed. We believe that such communal action will perpetuate at the grassroots level the spirit of People Power so brilliantly demonstrated to the world at EDSA I. It is People Power with a difference. From the grassroots will come out a culture of truth and integrity we so deeply seek and build. We instruct our CBCP Commissions to take active role including networking for this purpose.
May the Lord bless us in this sacred undertaking to build a new kind of Philippines and may our Blessed Mother be our companion and guide in this journey to truth and integrity.
For and on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:
+Angel Lagdameo, D.D.
Archbishop of Jaro
February 26, 2008