29 February 2008

Crisis of truth

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:46:00 02/28/2008

The pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), issued Tuesday, takes a few small steps forward and one large step back. No wonder the public is confused. What, in fact, are the bishops saying?

Let’s begin with the obvious. The bishops, meeting in an emergency plenary session, did not call on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to resign. But whoever expected the bishops to make such an appeal is either a political innocent or an incompetent strategist. Even bishops who are politically active against the Arroyo administration had told their friends in the media beforehand that a resignation call was not—and could not have been—in the cards. Politics, even of the episcopal variety, is the art of the possible.

Short of that unrealistic expectation, however, the much-anticipated statement still managed to disappoint.

Don’t get us wrong. The statement is a calm and reasoned argument for greater public accountability. It makes several telling points, both in its introductory passages and in its specific recommendations.

It acknowledges that the entire country faces “a crisis of truth and the pervading cancer of corruption.” This is a significant departure, or rather development, from the CBCP pastoral statement only last month, when the bishops took pains to distinguish the concerns of Metro Manila from those of the provinces. We are all, indeed, in the throes of a crisis of truth.

In recognizing that “the search for truth in the midst of charges and allegations must be determined and relentless,” the statement also accepts—even if it does not endorse—that what is in question in this crisis is the “moral ascendancy of the present government.” We may have different answers, but we are all, indeed, weighing not the political or economic but the very moral viability of the Arroyo administration.

The Feb. 26 statement also calls on the President to strike Executive Order 464 off the books. Some analysts, not all of them partial to the opposition, think this appeal is redundant or downright useless. The Supreme Court in 2006 famously invalidated two provisions in the EO that could be construed as gag orders. But there’s the rub. The administration and its allies continue to invoke EO 464, or at least their interpretation of the Court’s ruling. In other words, the order, which widened the scope of executive privilege to include even rank-and-file soldiers, continues to have its political uses. Thus, we can only agree: To encourage “those who might have knowledge of any corruption in branches of government” to join the search for truth, EO 464 must be lifted.

The pastoral statement also called on both the Senate and the Office of the Ombudsman to “use their distinct and different powers of inquiry” to discover the truth, “not for their own interests but for the common good.” We read the bishops’ recommendation as an appeal for fairness. (So with the recommendation that the media serve as a “positive resource.”) We agree: The truth is ill-served by a partial or partisan process.

So much to agree with, and much to reflect on. But why is the statement ultimately disappointing? Not because it seeks to redefine People Power as communal action at the grassroots level (the bishops are actually on to something), but because it asks the leader whose moral ascendancy is in question to “take the lead” in forging an answer.

This seems to us to privilege hierarchy—or what in theology is called the state of grace of a person in high position—over the “determined and relentless” search for truth. If a bishop were confronted with persistent allegations of wrongdoing, would the Pope ask him to take the lead in resolving the allegations against his own person? In such an event, process becomes more important than position.

We realize that, in itself, the language of the recommendation (“Urge the President and all the branches of government to take the lead in combating corruption wherever it is found”) seems to be neutral. But in the present context, it actually disregards a fundamental reality. In the scandal over the National Broadband Network, the President and her men have been less than forthright in telling the truth. That, in fact, is one of the reasons we have a crisis in the first place.

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