In a recent piece online (Cleaning up the mess, pressone.ph, March 30, 2022), I wrote of certain groups that are trying to use the Philippine Catholic Church to work for or against certain presidential candidates in the May 9 election. This, I said for the nth time, is contrary to the express teaching of the Catholic Church. A university professor and dear friend wrote to say that what worries him even more is the attempt to frame the presidential campaign in terms of “good versus evil,” which it is not, and should not be.
In politics, as distinguished from theology, we deal with relative values (good, better, best), not with absolutes. But it appears these groups would like to turn the normal everyday discourse on relative values into one involving absolutes. So they have tried to portray their side as “all good,” speaking only the truth, and their adversary as “all bad,” speaking nothing but lies and falsehood, and then pit the two sides against each other to favor the supposedly “all good.” Not only is this inexcusably flawed, it is also extremely dangerous.
In the real world, no one is all bad or all good; even the greatest saints have their defects, and the biggest sinners are not totally inhibited from doing anything good. Not even St. Thomas Aquinas, my good friend points out, requires absolute moral rectitude or personal holiness for statecraft. Halos above the head are welcome but not required; practical wisdom or prudence, basic honesty and respect for the natural moral law and human rights would suffice as a starting point.
If we claim that everything one candidate stands for is good, while everything another candidate stands for is bad, we could end up encouraging blind fanaticism for the one and blind hatred for the other. This is not in accord with our political culture. Ours is perhaps one of the few countries in the world where politicians from opposite camps, no matter how strongly opposed their political views, can still manage a civil, if not friendly conversation whenever they meet in public.
But what some politico-religious groups are preaching now could probably change all this. For so “many otherwise well-intentioned people, including Catholics,” (as my good friend puts it) seem to be blindly following a false lead. They “forget that we are all imperfect, flawed and prone to sin (including those who are running for high public office, whatever their political color) and that the dividing line between good and evil passes through the heart of every person,” (still quoting my good friend).
If we consult Scripture, we’ll see it as the old disease of the Pharisee, who exalts himself inside the temple while the publican, who dares not even go inside, bows meekly and says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner.” This pharisaism has apparently entered the highest levels of our politics.
We owe my good friend a lot for his priceless insight, and we should not waste it. We could begin by recognizing the fact that in our imperfect society, with all its imperfect members and institutions, the political contest for elective office, including the highest one, is never a contest between the devil and one or several canonizable saints. Always it is a contest between men and women with feet of clay, and the voters decide, often also imperfectly, who among them, given their defects, offers the best possible chance of serving the people better than everybody else. If there’s a better way of doing things, we have not found it.
Our right and duty as citizens is to choose a president who will do what is good, and avoid what is bad for the nation. Both “good” and “bad” involve a wide range of things. We do not always succeed, but we try to do our best. And we try to presume in good faith that all the candidates—all without exception—whatever their political platforms and individual capabilities, will strive to serve the common good, according to their best understanding of it. So, no matter how much we disapprove of a particular candidate, we never say there’s nothing good about him or her just because we do not approve. That would be going beyond the limits of our self-righteousness; we might end up claiming to know everything knowable and unknowable about everyone, like God. That would be quite a leap, since we don’t even know everything about ourselves.
That, however, is what we seem to be hearing from BBM’s adversaries. They have decided to gang up on him, without any quarters. All being “fair in love and in war” (and in presidential elections), not even BBM can complain about it; it is their right and privilege. They see BBM as the biggest obstacle to anyone of them prevailing, so it’s their best way of advancing and protecting their self-interest. But far beyond trying to convince voters not to vote for the candidate, they have tried to prevent him from running, despite his having previously won a Senate seat and served for one term, and nearly got elected as vice president in 2016.
This was a shoddy attempt to replicate Cory Aquino’s first dictatorial edict as revolutionary president in 1986 that banned the Marcoses from ever returning to their homeland from their exile in Hawaii, USA, even just to answer the charges filed by her government for alleged crimes committed in the Philippines. As that unconstitutional ban failed, so has the effort to prevent BBM from running for president. But it has not moderated the campaign of hate.
Is it pure disdain that has mobilized various forces against this candidate? I think not, rather it is fear. Fear that Filipinos might begin to see the old man Marcos in a new light after 36 years. For despite everything that has been said against him, BBM’s reported support among the CDE crowds and the young is reported to continue to rise. Again, why is this? Because, according to some millennial supporters I spoke to lately, none of the presidents who came after Marcos was like him; Filipinos were prouder of their country than they are now; and life for most Filipinos, especially the poor, was so much better under him.
It is truly sad that some pious men and women are all-out to get him. Having no special political expertise to impart to our politicians and voters, these people have no particular call to insert themselves inside the belly of our fiercely partisan politics. But having done so, their first duty is to make sure they do not recklessly “instrumentalize” their faith for their highly partisan politics, or turn a candidate that does not appeal to them into a hate object.
Catholic laymen who are faithful to the Church will always subordinate themselves to priests and religious for obvious reasons. But politics is the domain of the laity, not of priests and religious. So if the latter involve themselves actively in politics, in defiance of Church teaching, they should at least they be fair to everyone. This means they should not single out any particular candidate without subjecting all the other candidates to the same vetting process.
This is perhaps the best they can do now. They can talk morality to all the candidates and challenge them to demonstrate their eminent moral fitness for the office. But they must, to repeat, apply the same rules and standards to all. It can be done and it is not too late.
So far none of the candidates have been asked even the most basic questions about their personal lives. Aside from Bong Bong Marcos who has endured all the negatives from his adversaries and their religious associates, none of us have a clear view of what kind of men or women are trying to elbow each other out of the presidential race. They should be asked the unasked questions now, before their fifteen minutes of borrowed fame runs out.
Let us begin with their family lives. Because the family is the basic unit of society— as an institution it owes its origin to God rather than to the state—-the man or woman who would be president should have a family that embodies the integrity and dignity of Christian family life based on marriage. We cannot have a presidential family that is an embarrassment to the state. Whether the candidate is married or a solo parent, he or she should be able to show a life lived in chastity, without any marital infidelities, concubinage or cohabitation with a married or unmarried person of the same or opposite sex. Here, perhaps Vice President Leni Robredo, being the lone woman candidate, could set the pace.
As the primary enforcer of law and public policy, the man or woman who would be president should be free from any entanglements that would render him or her subservient to anyone who may wish to meddle in the making of laws, legal orders and public policies. In the course of a fiercely fought campaign, candidates may want to tap openly forbidden and illegal sources in order to mobilize crowds, pay for special operations, fraudulent surveys and actual votes. No candidate should be linked to any interventionist foreign power or earth-polluting, climate change-inducing corporate behemoth, but the danger of a candidate selling himself or herself to one or the other cannot be ruled out.
These concerns are but illustrative. One may want to draw further inspiration from the live-streamed homily eloquently delivered by Bishop of Kalookan and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Pablo Virgilio David at the April 6 “Solidarity Mass for the Moral Vote,” presided by Cardinal-Archbishop of Manila Jose F. Advincula at Baclaran church. None of the good bishop’s sixteen points or so invites intense debate, but I thought the reference to EDSA 1986 should be put in the proper perspective. We need to know the whole truth about EDSA 1986 before we can talk earnestly of perpetuating its spirit. Until all the facts are known, not even the bishops can claim to know the whole truth about it.
It was a joy to join the solidarity mass online, with all those bishops and priests concelebrating. But I wondered whether the authorities did not overstate their case when they called it a “solidarity mass for the moral vote.” Because in the CBCP prayer for the May elections we continuously pray that “conscience may always be our ultimate norm,” a “solidarity mass for a moral vote” would have assured every Catholic voter that by exercising his or her well-formed individual conscience on election day he or she would be casting a moral vote, whether or not it agrees with a bishop’s vote.
But, as the eucharistic celebration is described, it would appear that only the vote that agrees with the clerics’ choice could be called “the moral vote.” Although no candidate’s name is mentioned, there seems to be an attempt to associate “the moral vote” with a particular candidate—one who is far from perfect but is seen with priests and nuns and sometimes bishops campaigning inside and outside churches. We cannot allow the enemies of the Church to see any hint of theocracy in this.
The Church and the nation would be served well if the religious authorities could now focus more intensely on the issues that would enable the candidates to demonstrate—and the electorate to see—their eminent fitness for the office. This would entail a closer look at, among other things, the content of their character, their view of society, their programs of government, their vision for the future, their response to the changing world order and the global challenge to the survival of the human race. All this should help the laity cast their moral vote, not by trying to replicate the choice of the religious authorities, but by exercising their well-formed individual consciences as free, independent and responsible Catholics. The grand political competition called Philippine presidential election can then proceed, not as a fight between “good” and “evil” as framed by the religious activists, but hopefully, in Voltaire’s words, as a contest “between the good and the best.”