Friday, May 15, 2009

Church People in Politics I

The Alagad (lay ministers) program of the diocese of Malaybalay is as old as the diocese itself, starting as it did forty years ago shortly after the province of Bukidnon was carved out of the Archdiocese of Cagayan and made an independent Prelature Nullius. Their training process was for the work they would be doing as leaders of basic ecclesial communities (BECs) in their respective barrios, centering mainly on their conducting of the Sunday (priest-less) worshiping of the community, bible sharing and pastoral planning especially. But there were other areas covered too, like Christian family life, the Church’s social doctrine, community organizing, spirituality, etc.

But starting this year, the program may well have to include a crush course on how to be a Christian public servant. A politician, in other words. For up to now, the one condition imposed on men wanting to serve as Alagads was that if ever they ran for public office, they would have to stop acting as Church ministers. The reason behind the prohibition was to forestall the entry of people who would take advantage of their position in the religious community to build themselves up for a political career later. Wrongly or rightly, that was what we judged best for our fledgling program from our understanding of Philippine political culture. Recently however, the diocese decided to lift that long-standing prohibition and allow Alagads to remain in their ministry even as elected government officials if they ran and won..

The reason for the change is the admission that the nation’s politics has sunk down to terribly low levels. Good men and women, principled public servants—these are clearly the desperate need of our times and not harnessing such potential good leaders for the good of the country does not seem to be the right way to go. It’s a prudential judgment of a Church that seeks to be relevant to its people’s life as it is being lived now, in the same way that the previous prohibition was also a prudential judgment that was deemed to be fitted to conditions then.

A proviso for the change has been made and accepted, namely, that Alagads-turned- politicians must religiously attend the usual Alagad meetings and continuing education seminars. They are also asked to be open to fraternal correction by their peers should they stray from the straight and narrow and behave like ordinary “trapos”, conscious that their reputation as a body rises or falls with the probity or lack of it of their politician members.

One other factor of relevance to the contemplated change is the sense—something that has grown in our consciousness with our experience of BECs—that perhaps it is time now to look for the reform of our political culture not from the top but from the bottom of our highly stratified society. What the Left kept hammering away at in martial law times to get us to support their armed struggle option was that people in power do not easily, if ever, give up power: they had to be eliminated, by violent force if necessary. And at the time they were unrelenting in saying it was necessary. We accept their negative reading of people in power but not their suggested method of change! Our rural folk who are always at the short end of the stick in the nation’s evils are helpless before the corruption of the big people up there in the highest reaches of Philippine society. But down there at their level, they see they have a handle on the corruption of their barrio officials. If they cannot get at the sophisticated thieves at the top, they can at the petty ones at the bottom, and they understand all too clearly the intertwined web of corruption of one level with another, barrio with municipal, municipal in turn with provincial and national and so on in our marvelous system of patronage and kick-backs. It is at the barrio level they can come to grips with that system. And if it is true that the larger problem is our easy condoning of political corruption as the perquisite of office of elected officials, then it is one that has to do with a general over-hauling of our values as a people. That radical change can take place when whole communities band together as one, as in the BECs, to combat the evil in a concerted manner. That banding together in common cause is what we call people power, the moral force that, contrary to current despair, is still very much alive in functioning BECs.

Will it work? A desperate measure from all appearances, a last ditch effort, as it were, to break our slide as a Catholic people into destructive despair. We have reason to hope it will if BECs follow through as the vehicles of change and self-correction in the way they have so far been proving themselves to be.

One misgiving, however, occurs to me at the change of directions of the Alagads of Bukidnon: Will the about-face in their tradition inevitably lead to the formation of Catholic political parties? Or at least of a Catholic vote, the possibility even of block-voting similar to the practice of the Iglesia ni Kristo?

I trust not. For that is not a consummation to be desired or aspired for. Politicized religion is not what we should be ending up with in our attempts to make our faith effective in the reform of our political order and culture. If there is going to be an authentic Catholic vote, it will be along the lines of voters exercising their suffrage franchise in principled ways: not buying or selling votes, not cheating, not destroying others by untruths and slanders, not doing what passes as standard political practice in our nation today—as the bishops have been repeating over and over each time election year comes around. With little success. So it’s a tall order, yes, but necessary and obligatory for all of us who profess to be men and women of religion to try one more time.