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The Church and Partisan Politics

As the Philippines prepares to elect a new president in May, the local Church is divided over its manner of political participation. The candidacy of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., the son of the late dictator ousted during the bloodless Philippine Revolution of 1986, is a cause for grave concern for many priests and religious. Marcos is accused of promoting a revisionist view of the harsh martial law period ruled by his father. Fearing a return to power of the Marcos family and the possible dismantling of democratic institutions, some clergy and religious have campaigned against Bongbong and openly endorsed the presidential bid of Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, a candidate seen as untainted by corruption or abuse of power. Even though there are other presidential candidates, the election has been reduced to a battle of Leni versus Bongbong, good versus evil, democracy versus dictatorship, and truth versus falsehood.

In its statement “The Truth Will Set You Free, ” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines” denounced attempts at historical revisionism of the martial law period and the 1986 Revolution. The bishops, as a body, have not endorsed any presidential candidate. However, they have implicitly allowed catholic lay organizations and individual priests and religious to publicly support Leni Robredo’s candidacy. Some bishops have prohibited the use of the pulpit for political campaigning. However, some clergy have used creative ways to show support for Leni, such as wearing or displaying the color pink in churches and religious gatherings. Pink is the campaign color of the Robredo camp. Leni has visited churches where priests have publicly blessed her. Political gatherings and meetings have been held on church grounds. Some religious communities and catholic schools have published statements supporting Robredo.

While every Catholic has a right to vote and express a political opinion, it is more complicated when a priest or religious publicly engages in partisan politics. The religious identity of priests and religious sisters and brothers cannot be separated from their personal identity when they speak and act in the public sphere. It will be naïve for a priest or religious to claim that they only are endorsing a candidate as an individual and not as someone who represents the Church. In the predominantly catholic culture of the Philippines, whatever a cleric or religious says or does publicly will always be associated with the Church and the community to which they belong.

In Deus Caritas Est (#28), Pope Benedict states that “the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” The Church certainly has the prophetic duty to denounce falsehoods and historical revisionism that cover up injustices. It is a different matter for pastors to campaign for political candidates. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine Catholic Church (#573) warns that “to claim that one party or political coalition responds completely to the demands of faith or of Christian life would give rise to dangerous errors.”

Some in the Church argue that the urgency of preventing a Marcos presidency can justify the suspension of the church prohibition against clerical partisan political activity. However, this justification disregards the fundamental moral principle that the ends do not justify the means. The Church will be perceived as self-serving and untrustworthy if it is willing to bend or ignore its own rules to pursue political goals. There are many ways to support the common good in the coming election without having to violate church teachings on partisan politics, such as voters’ education activities and poll-watching to prevent vote-buying and intimidation.

It is ironic that while the Church objects to historical revisionism, some of its pastors have not learned from history. Clergy have tried and failed to influence the outcome of elections in the past. There have been three Philippine Presidents (Ramos, Estrada, and Duterte) denounced as unacceptable by church leaders during their election campaigns, and yet they won by a large margin. There are candidates for political office endorsed by bishops who did not win. Filipinos generally do not like being told by the Church who they should or should not vote for. Priests and religious who believe that voters should heed their partisan endorsements are practicing a form of moral revisionism that will only further diminish the Church’s credibility and relevance in the country’s political life.