Days before the Philippine elections, hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests have come out to express support for the presidential bid of Vice President Leni Robredo.
In the Diocese of Borongan, 70 of the 76 priests and three deacons issued a statement of support for Robredo and her running mate, former senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan.
The members of the clergy said that “after careful consideration” they decided to contribute their voices to the “increasing chorus of support” for Robredo and Pangilinan.
“The pair exemplifies a new kind of politics that actually listens to and empowers people for the common good in ways that assist the poor and disenfranchised,” read the priests’ statement.
In the Archdiocese of Cebu, 92 priests and 167 nuns, religious leaders, and consecrated persons also endorsed the Robredo-Pangilinan tandem.
“We view the coming May 9 elections as not just one ordinary electoral exercise. It has become the battle for the soul of our beloved country,” read a statement from the group Padre Madre Misyonero for Leni.
“It is a fight not just between political personalities,” read the statement. “Rather, we are asked to decide whether we want a government guided by the rule of law and respect for our cherished freedoms or do we want to continue the gradual, though evident, diminution of our liberties.”
Quoting a 2020 statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the group asked: “Do we continue to be like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water, or do we jump out of the pot especially now that an opportunity presents itself?”
The priests and nuns said the times “are extremely abnormal and we believe that silence in front of a possible return of a lamented past is even more dangerous.”
“Since the reign of God should be reflected in all aspects of our lives, we believe that it is part of our prophetic calling to denounce the disinformation and historical revisionism that now accompany the attempt to return to power by the family that has destroyed democratic institutions and pillaged the country,” they said.
Earlier, a group of at least 1,400 Catholic bishops, priests, and deacons belonging to the group Clergy for the “Moral Choice” also declared their support for Robredo and Pangilinan.
“It is clear to us that the choice is Leni and Kiko because we know their track record. We know that they’ve truly served the poor, especially, and the whole nation. If we look at it, they are good shepherds,” said Father John Era in a media briefing on Wednesday, May 4.
Monsignor Melchor David cited the need for “a more concrete participation of the Church,” saying the coming elections is “a battle between the truth and falsehoods.”
“We cannot shrug off and let the fate of our country be dictated by false and misleading claims that aim to change our history,” said the priest.
Father Robert Reyes, known to be a vocal critic of the government, said the endorsement of Robredo and Pangilinan is a declaration to stop evil forces from taking hold of the country’s leadership.
“Before our very eyes, evil is operating. And if you don’t say, ‘Stop it, what you’re doing is terrible,’ evil will continue!” said the priest.
Robredo and Pangilinan are running against former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late strong Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and Sara Duterte, Davao City mayor and daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Earlier in the week, the religious group Iglesia ni Cristo, whose members claim to vote as a bloc according to the dictate of its leaders, endorsed the candidacy of Marcos and Duterte.
Bishop emeritus Antonio Tobias of Novaliches said nothing in Church law prevents individual clergymen from supporting particular candidates.
‘Battle for the soul’
This year’s presidential election is seen as one of the most consequential in Philippine history — a potentially make-or-break moment for the young democracy.
The group of clergy belonging to the “Moral Choice” group called the political exercise as a “battle for the soul” of the nation — a choice between the rule of law and the “diminution of our liberties.”
Marcos Jr has a seemingly unassailable double-digit lead, winning widespread support by forging alliances with several of the country’s rival political dynasties.
But his juggernaut campaign has been propelled by social media misinformation seeking to rewrite history about his father’s brutal rule.
As many as 50,000 people were detained during martial law that ran from 1972-1981 as the elder Marcos and his wife Imelda became by-words for authoritarian kleptocracy.
Imelda, now 92, is seen as a driving force behind the family’s public rehabilitation and the rebranding of that era as the Philippines’ “golden age.”
After six years of President Duterte’s authoritarian rule, critics doubt Marcos Jr’s commitment to democracy. And they fear his rule could further degrade human rights and worsen corruption.
Marcos Jr has previously expressed support for the “healthy exercise of democracy.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has so far not taken an official position in the upcoming election, but Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, the conference’s president, has urged voters to back “candidates who will sustain and strengthen our democracy, uphold the rule of law, and respect the dignity and rights of human beings.”
He has stopped short of naming names or endorsing one candidate over the other.
With a Marcos victory increasingly likely, individual members of the clergy are speaking out.
‘Years of darkness’
Divine Word missionary priest Flavie Villanueva — who has received death threats and been charged with sedition for his criticism of Duterte’s bloody drug war — said the Church had an obligation to speak out.
“We cannot remain ignorant about what is happening around us,” he told AFP. “We have a moral obligation to act as the conscience of the people.”
He warned that the election of “thieves and murderers” would cast “years of darkness over the Philippines.”
Around 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and the faith permeates daily life. Religious television programs are ubiquitous and divorce remains illegal.
The Church played a crucial role in the 1986 “People Power” revolution which brought down the Marcos regime. But it is unlikely to make an institution-wide endorsement.
Father Villanueva said the situation in the Philippines was so serious that Pope Francis should weigh in. “I pray that he would,” he said.
Many Filipinos believe Pope Francis already has, with a slew of misleading social media posts falsely claiming he backed Marcos Jr. – with a report from Alren Beronio and Agence France Presse