So said the American general William Tecumseh Sherman. Our present republic differs from its previous incarnations in invoking God, and not some vague Supreme Being, in its opening lines just as it is said to be secular but not anti-religious in its orientation. In many ways, the hands of the government are tied when it comes to favoring churches, but churches are free to do what they please when it comes to elections and their flocks.
Back when our elections were still held in November, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued its first joint pastoral letter on elections on Sept. 12, 1953. It marked a turning point, in relations between the Republic and the Catholic hierarchy, away from the wariness if not hostility dating back to the era of the revolution. That a new era had begun was demonstrated on Dec. 30, 1953, when President Ramon Magsaysay became the first president to take his oath of office on a Bible (in fact, he used two, one from each side of his family). A year later, on Dec. 4, 1954, he led the Catholic faithful in consecrating the Philippine nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Two years after that, on Dec. 2, 1956, he consecrated the entire Philippines to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There were some protests, to be sure, but even the Rizal law, signed six months earlier, had a provision negotiated by the Catholic Church, which meant only college students would have the option of reading uncensored versions of Rizal’s novels.
Magsaysay, himself, was following, not leading, public opinion. Congress, sensing where Catholic opinion lay in an election year (1949), abolished divorce, which had existed in a highly restricted form, since the American colonial era. Fernando Lopez, President Quirino’s vice president, led a similar consecration of the Philippines in 1950.
Last Feb. 25, the CBCP issued a pastoral letter on the anniversary of the Edsa revolution, in which the bishops collectively bore witness to martial law and that peaceful revolution, setting the historical record straight and condemning fake news, black propaganda, and so on. A month later, the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines joined Pope Francis in consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, itself an act echoing John Paul II’s consecration of the world (including Russia) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984. The Philippines, itself, had last been consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
These — consecrations of nations and bishops speaking with one voice — are political acts, and in this election season, it is necessary to ask this question. Which is the authentic face of any church: its ordained leaders, its lay leaders (including those active in secular affairs), or the community of the faithful?
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. enjoys the personal endorsement of both Mike Velarde of El Shaddai, who, personally, goes back a long way with the Marcoses (he’d helped plan Imelda Marcos’ birthday bash in 1972 and helped broker getting Arturo Tolentino as Marcos’ running mate in 1986) and the institutional one of FBI-wanted pastor, Apollo Quiboloy, who has been a pillar of the Dutertes.
Leni Robredo has been endorsed by many lay councils in Lipa, Calapan, Taytay (Palawan), the charismatic movement Ligaya ng Panginoon, a majority of the Sangguniang Laiko ng Pilipinas, and by organizations of the clergy, as well as religious orders such as the Christian Brothers of Taft Ave., the Daughters of Charity (St. Vicent de Paul Province), and a significant flock of Jesuits. The Catholic hierarchy, for its part, is more circumspect, though movements within the Church and other religious groups are far less shy. Take the relationship between these organizations and party lists. El Shaddai has Buhay, the Iglesia ni Cristo has Alagad, Jesus is Lord had CIBAC. But the more politically savvy also endorse locally: at one time, Iglesia had endorsed ACT-CIS in Quezon City and 1-SAGIP in Las Piñas; Quiboloy had endorsed party lists ACT-CIS, 1-BAP, and OFW Family Club in the past.
The limits on the part of the Catholic clergy being actually involved in the government are a prohibition on holding secularly elected office, though the appointive office does not seem to be banned. The limits on Church-state relations are fixed by secular law: the government cannot demand religious tests of its citizens or provide state support. Over time, the Catholic authorities have evolved into thinking they function best when exercising self-control by focusing on helping in the process of discernment.