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The Church and the Elections

Is there a 'Catholic vote'? No. But is there a 'Catholic voice'? Yes.

By Lito B. Zulueta Published Feb 18, 2022 7:12 pm

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is set to issue a pastoral letter on the 2022 elections, and many are speculating it will, short of endorsing, suggest a set of candidates or even a political party, which will muster a Catholic vote to determine the elections.

But is there such a thing as a “Catholic vote”?

If by Catholic vote, one means the bloc vote of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), then there is no such thing. But if by Catholic vote, one means an educated vote, a discerning vote, a conscience vote, if you will, then there’s such a thing as a Catholic vote. 

Politicians may be courting the INC to get the nod of its leadership, but they’re certainly eager as well to show they’re on good terms with the Catholic clergy. This is because whatever the worth of the much-vaunted INC vote, it pales in comparison with Catholic numbers: INC adherents comprise only 2.6% of the Philippine population as against the overwhelming 80% of Catholics according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority. 

Considering the history of turncoatism of our politicians, it may be said that the Catholic Church is the only authentic political party in the Philippines.

Moreover INC churches are mainly in urban centers while Catholic dioceses are located not only in big cities and metropolitan areas but also in the remotest regions. Over all the Catholic Church has 88 dioceses in the Philippines. 

The Catholic Media Network is the largest broadcast network in the country, with 54 Catholic radio stations reaching 11 regions and 35 provinces.

Politicians make it a point to appear on good terms with the bishops and clergy or at least, not in loggerheads with them, because they know that the only authentic political opposition in the country is the Catholic Church. 

Considering the history of turncoatism of our politicians, it may be said that the Catholic Church is the only authentic political party in the Philippines.

Sept. 2021 file photo of the premises of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.

Especially since martial law and the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Catholic Church has been playing an active and powerful denunciatory role that has determined much of Philippine history. 

In 1978 when the Batasang Pambansa elections were held and the Imelda Marcos-led Kilusang Bagong Lipunan made a clean sweep of all seats in parliament, leaving none for the opposition, save those won by the Pusyon Bisaya of Cebu, the Church was already perceived as the real opposition. 

Declared the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore in a monograph, “The most significant opposition in the country, at least theoretically, comes from the Catholic Church.”

The view was reinforced in the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, in which the Church played a decisive role. According to Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, published in 1996 by the Oxford University Press: “Given the Church’s position in Philippine society as the only institution vested with significant moral legitimacy—no other actor—Filipino or foreign—could likely have played a comparable role.”

As in the 1986 revolution, the Catholic Church played a key role in the 1987 June Struggle that forced the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea to hold elections. 

The late Jaime Cardinal Sin was instrumental in ushering public support for the 1986 People Power Revolution that helped topple the Marcos dictatorship.

Social scientists noted later how the Catholic Church had been playing a significant role in the democratization and the restoration of civil society under authoritarian regimes. Similar developments took place as well in Latin America and of course, Eastern Europe, leading US historian Samuel Huntington to call, in a 1991 journal, the “third wave” of global democratization as “the Catholic wave.”

In 2015, reporting on the Philippine visit of Pope Francis, The Crux of Paris declared that any significant social and political movement in the Philippines without the involvement of the Catholic Church was unimaginable:

“Arguably there’s no country in modern times where the Catholic Church helped set the course of its history as much as in Poland. Yet the Philippines, where Pope Francis arrived Thursday for a four-day visit, might just be a close second.

Restoring democracy was the easy part. Making it mature has proven very problematic.

“This is a country, after all, where the ‘People Power’ movement, inspired and sustained by the Catholic Church, swept the Marcos dictatorship from power in the 1980s, and where still today it’s difficult to imagine any serious social or political movement taking shape without Catholic involvement.”

Having triggered the democratization wave that swept the world in the last quarter of the 20th century, the Church has since labored to deepen that democracy. Restoring democracy was the easy part. Making it mature has proven very problematic.

One could glean the Church’s labors at democratization from the work of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). Founded by Cardinal Jaime Sin and Comelec commissioner Haydee Yorac in 1991, the PPCRV has worked for a fraud- and violence-free elections by sending thousands of volunteers in election precincts to guard the ballot. 

The National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Redemptorist Church) in Baclaran, Parañaque City lights up in various colors as devotees maintain their distance from each other in this Dec. 2021 file photo.

In recent years, the PPCRV and other Catholic groups have focused on voter education. 

The Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP), which groups together the 1,345 Catholic schools all over the country, has called on its members for “Catholic values to be proclaimed vigorously in these elections.”

“We value truth, and thus we deplore the massive disinformation that is deceiving our people, especially our youth, in a way that is unparalleled in our history,” the CEAP said in its statement on Feb. 7. 

Our vote is an expression and affirmation of our human dignity, a fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine.

“We vehemently reject the candidates who run under this platform of lies and historical distortion – disseminated in social media by massively-financed trolls – particularly the brazen presentation of the Marcos dictatorship and Martial Law as benevolent regimes in our political history. We denounce candidates who exploit our people’s poverty through vote buying and intimidation.”

CEAP is part of “Halalang Marangal,” a coalition of 20 organizations, Catholic and non-Catholic, that have banded together to work for a “responsible and transparent vote” on May 9. 

Ahead of its much-awaited pastoral letter, the CBCP has directed churches to form “circles of discernment” where parishioners could discuss issues and exchange ideas so that they could decide who to vote for on May 9.

A cyclist passes by a fence full of posters of politicians along E. Rodriguez Sr. Avenue in Quezon City at the start of the campaign period for national positions on Feb. 8.

“The idea is responsible voting and active involvement, especially among laypeople,” said Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma. “We use the word responsible voting discernment [where] we study many aspects of the candidate’s life, his or her capacity, track record and programs, among others.”

It is hoped that the circles of discernment will firm up a Catholic voice in the elections, resulting in a “conscience vote.”

"Our political choice reflects our values," said Kidapawan Bishop Jose Collin Bagaforo, national director of Caritas Philippines. "Our vote is an expression and affirmation of our human dignity, a fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine. It is a gift from God to people and the way we use it is our gift to our country. It is the fulfillment of one's own responsibility to participate in the social and political life of our country and to influence it."