GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 21 Jan) – What message did President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III intend to convey in his address when he welcomed Pope Francis in Malacañang last January 16? On the following day he was criticized for its being inappropriate.
Was he justly criticized?
What He Said
Let’s see how the President’s address may be summed up in gist. Quoted in italics are the President’s own words.
(I) Before and after the Vatican II: The Catholic clergy “justified the injustices committed during the colonization of the Philippines” by invoking the primacy of the spiritual, “the Kingdom of God is not of this earth”. The Church was “the pillar of the establishment”. After the Vatican II and the emergence of the Liberation Theology this changed with “the notion that temporal matters affect our spiritual well-being, and, consequently, cannot be ignored”.
He expounded two passages from the Gospel of Matthew to elaborate his notion of the temporal as the spouse of the spiritual in the Catholic faith and said: “The Gospel challenges each member of the Church to go beyond almsgiving and mere charity, and to be concerned with injustice in temporal matters.” He cited the principle of double effect being taught in relation to this.
He sort of pontificated: “When the Church engaged in temporal matters, it was truly working to bring the Kingdom of God apparent in this world. It was a living Church, a source of nurturing and support for the faithful” that “at a time” when crisis confronts the faith (citing instances of three movies: The Cardinal, The Shoes of the Fisherman, and Jesus Christ Superstar) “elicited deeper thoughts on how to further deepen the faith”.
(II) The impact on the Aquino Family: He cited the teachings of the Church after the Vatican II as having “been central to my family’s advocacy, which is understandable considering what we, along with millions of Filipinos, went through under the dictatorship”. By “advocacy”, he must be referring to “justice and freedom”. He related how “the most fundamental rights of many Filipinos were flagrantly and routinely violated” during the martial law period.
He related the “tyranny and persecution” – his family lost his father and was avoided by many of their friends; only “a few … dared speak up”. He named and commended a few of the many “in the Church” who “truly lived their faith and acted as followers of Christ in being their brothers’ keepers”. For him, personally, “The courage and daring displayed by the clergy solidified my belief.”
(III) Church of the poor and the oppressed during martial law: Continuing his testimony to the “courage and daring” of the clergy: “… Especially during the Martial Law years, the Church of the poor and oppressed shone vividly. The clergy was always at the forefront of those wanting to emulate Christ and carry the burdens for all of us. Indeed, they nourished the compassion, faith, and courage of the Filipino people. This allowed millions to come together as a single community of faith and make possible the miracle of the EDSA People Power Revolution.”
(IV) Turn-around of many Church members: The transformation of the Church after EDSA was “hard to understand …. We were taught that the Catholic Church is the true church, and that there is constancy, for it upholds the truth at all times.”
He said “… there was a true test of faith”, obviously of the Filipino Catholics, “when many members of the Church, once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless, suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses”, without naming President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
These, he revealed, “we are still trying to rectify to this very day”. He expressed disbelief that in “correcting the wrongs of the past, one would think that the Church would be our natural ally.” This has not been the case. “In contrast to their previous silence, some members of the clergy now seem to think that the way to be true to the faith means finding something to criticize, even to the extent that one prelate admonished me to do something about my hair, as if it were a mortal sin.”
His impression of the “many members of the Church” as his critics: “Is it any wonder then, that they see the glass not as half-full, or half-empty, but almost totally empty. Judgment is rendered without an appreciation of the facts.”
(V) His motive in running for president: While humbling himself as “only human”, “imperfect” and having “discomfort with the trappings of power”, he avowed he ran for President “because if I passed up on this opportunity to effect real change, I would not have been able to live with myself, especially if the situation worsened”.
He must be referring to his critics in the Church when he declared, “But in this effort, the participation of all is necessary. Everything I have said has not been to criticize, but to speak the truth, for the truth shall set us all free. If we are able to settle our differences, can we not benefit our people quicker?”
(VI) Impressed by Pope’s admonition to the Curia: While relating to the Pope, was he addressing this to his critics? “This is why I was struck by what Your Holiness recently said to the Curia, when you warned them of the illnesses that not only Christians, but anyone in a position of power, is prone to, including that of thinking one’s self immortal or indispensable, and the danger of becoming sowers of discord through gossip and grumbling.” (Bold italics ours)
(VII) Tribute to the Pope: He profusely paid tribute to Pope Francis.
This in brief was what he said: During the martial law period, the Church was truly the Church of the poor, marginalized and oppressed Filipinos leading them to overthrow the Dictator Marcos through the peaceful EDSA revolution. But during the administration of President Arroyo the leaders of the Church turned silent on the abuses of Arroyo. In my time, we expected them to be our ally in correcting the past wrongs. Instead, they became critics seeing almost everything wrong in my administration.
In appreciating the Pope’s admonition of the Roman Curia and in paying tribute to him, the President was giving the impression he was asking Pope Francis’ help to make the Church his ally.
Criticism and Reply
In the January 17 reports of The Philippine Star, Aquino’s critics said “his comments were inappropriate for a visit intended to welcome the pope”, reflecting “his vindictiveness and inability to accept negative comments”; and, he “used the event to discuss his issues with the church,” turning “the event into a gripe session even as he conveniently omitted the exclusion and inequality pervading the country under his watch.”
In the same Star report, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda justified the President’s comments. In a January 20 report, Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.: “Makatotohanan ang kanyang talumpati at wala siyang layuning mapanira (His speech was truthful and he had no intention to inflict harm).”
Coloma explained that Aquino only narrated his own experiences and observations about the role of the Church in the country. He suggested, “… If we review the entire text, we will understand the context. It was a narrative that is historically accurate and truthful and there is no singling out of any personality or any group.”
In the January 17 Star report (Church officials refuse to react to PNoy’s speech), the top Church officials expressed understanding of the President’s comments. Instead of being drawn into the fray, they urged the people – media must be included – to focus on the messages of Pope Francis.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said, “I think the speech of the president was rather original because it’s not always that there is such speech during formal ceremonies of the reception of the pope.” He observed, “It was interesting [to hear the views of a] politician with passion and concrete experience of suffering [especially on] the level of pope who knows in general the problems.”
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said, “My first appeal to all of you is while the speech of the president is important, I hope we will not lose our focus on the pope.” He said that “we can continue exploring his speech even after the return of the Holy Father to Vatican.”
He believed only the President can explain the meaning of his speech. “The personal experience that shaped this type of interpretation of facts was his own suffering during martial law and appreciation of role of church that time. There is also a political dimension. Now that he is president and Filipinos can attest to this in many of his speeches, he always referred to the previous administration and how he has inherited some problems.”
The January 17 Star report (Noy: Church officials silent on abuses of past gov’ts) said that Pope Francis delivered his statement before Aquino made his comments. He urged an audience of senior political leaders “to reject every form of corruption, which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child” and stressed the need “now, more than ever … that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good”.
The report implied that the President’s address was a response to the statements of Pope Francis particularly those concerning (1) the challenges facing the Philippines and other countries of Asia and (2) the role of the family and its challenges in the renewal of society. The challenges, anchored on the social teachings of the Church, touch sensitive issues at the core of Aquino’s disenchantment with the Philippine Catholic Bishops.
The implication misleads. By protocol, the host welcomes and the guest responds. Pope Francis opened his address with “I thank you, Mr. President, for your kind welcome and for your words of greeting …” – he was responding to the welcome. The President’s address was prepared – issued on January 12, 2015 and posted in The Official Gazette on the same date.
The last fact explains why the President had no response to the last portion of the Pope’s address “commending inter-religious dialogues and the Bangsamoro peace process”. He or his speech writers must not have anticipated this; but, they did expect the Pope’s remarks on social and political issues.
We have summarized the President’s address. Yet, we second Secretary Coloma – read the full text of the address. Then you can determine for yourselves how “historically accurate and truthful” is the narrative as Coloma has claimed and discern how much of the truth the President told and did not tell. We believe the Pope knew as much as he understood.
Was the President’s welcome address inappropriate? Was the President justly criticized?
(Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at email@example.com.)