Thursday, February 24, 2011

1986 bishops' power: like the wrath of God

(This is a much shortened, revised version of my long article that came out in the Mr. and Ms. Special edition, Feb. 21-27, 1986. This is about how the Catholic bishops weighed in to help effect a tipping point. )

FINALLY SOMETHING was beginning to unravel. Out of the silent halls of the Catholic Church, the voices of the hierarchy crackled. The 1986 post-election statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) came down like the wrath of God.

Valentine’s Day 1986 will be written into Philippine history as the day the bishops condemned in their loudest voices a political exercise. Lifting up their hemlines, they at last waded into muddy waters to cross the moat and lay siege, so to speak, to an impenetrable fortress.
The bishops’ statement was, by far, the most scathing ever released by the CBCP then. It outdid all previous pastoral letters, statements and exhortations. And although nowhere in the statement was there mention of who was guilty in the elections they described as “unparalleled in the fraudulence of the conduct,” there was no mistaking who the bishops meant.
As former hostaged Jesuit Bishop Federico Escaler of the Ipil Prelature in Zamboanga del Sur unabashedly exclaimed: “Marcos will be boiling mad!”

Scoring the systematic disenfranchisement of voters, the widespread and massive vote-buying, the deliberate tampering with the election returns, intimidation, harassment, terrorism and murder, the bishops took issue with “a government in possession of power.” Signed by Cebu Archbishop and CBCP president Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, the statement warned: “If such a government does not of itself freely correct the evil it has inflicted on the people,” then it is the bishops’ serious moral obligation to denounce and correct the evil.

“We are morally certain that the people’s real will for change has been manifested,” said Bishop Teodoro Bacani. Added Bishop Francisco Claver, SJ: “The mandate for change is very clear. You make up your mind what the change means.”

Although the bishops did not go into specifics regarding the action to be taken, they prescribed “active resistance of evil by peaceful means—in the manner of Christ.” Their call would later take shape in Corazon C. Aquino’s seven-point program of civil obedience presented at the “Tagumpay ng Bayan” rally in Luneta where she called for a boycott of the crony banks, media, corporations and the delay of payments to the government. The bishops’ presence at the rally bolstered Aquino’s claim of victory in the elections.

When President Ferdinand E. Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, there was nary a whimper of protest from the CBCP. The silence sent shivers down the rank and file. As was expected, not a few militant Church people found themselves either arrested, detained, tortured, killed or deported.

Fast forward to 1986. They had come a long way, these monsignors.

Before the 1986 February snap elections, the CBCP released an exhortation, “We Must Obey God Rather Than Man,” calling on the faithful “not [to] passively surrender to the forces of evil and allow them to unilaterally determine the conduct and results of these elections.” Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin and his auxiliary bishops had written one in Dec. 1985 while Vidal also issued one for Cebu. Several bishops issued letters for their respective dioceses.

Coming out with the 1986 post-election statement was not easy. As Bishop Antonio Fortich of Bacolod said on their first day of deliberation, “It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit in here.” Closeted for days in the CBCP headquarters in Intramuros, several times retreating in silence to pray and discern, the 66 bishops (among the more than 100, several of whom were retired) divided themselves into groups and presented their reports on the elections. Namfrel’s Jose Concepcion, Vicente Jayme and Jose Feria came to give reports.

Not to be outdone, Imelda Marcos did a Nicodemus and came in the dead of night to reportedly try to convince the bishops not to come out with the statement.

Cory Aquino came, too, two hours before the bishops’ press conference to “assure Vidal of my non-violent course of action.” Outside the CBCP gates some 100 pro-Marcos people picketed. Some of them did not know why they were picketing.

There were two drafts to choose from. The bishops voted for the stronger one. Among the members of the drafting committee were Claver, Escaler and Bacani.

Four theologians helped in the drafting of the statement. They were Fathers Lambino, SJ, de Achutegui, SJ, Gomez, OP and Miranda, SVD. Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, sent guidelines which, Escaler said, were more or less followed.
While many bishops emerged from the conference beaming with satisfaction, there were a few who abstained from voting for the letter. Escaler said, “But it was all done in an open spirit. We were practically unanimous.”

In inceptum finis est. A beginning foreshadowing the end.

Postscript: It was Jaime Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila, who issued the call to arms, so to speak, after elements in the military declared a putsch and broke away from the Marcos government on the night of Feb. 22. Sin shepherded millions to Edsa to support the putschists and prevent Marcos’ firepower from crushing the uprising. After three days of people power, the world watched the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship and hailed the rise of Corazon C. Aquino as the new president of the Republic.

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