Wheel of fate

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

I am not surprised, although I must admit not being pleasantly so, that our senators and everybody else at the Senate gave the Catholic bishops reverential treatment last week.

I want to stress though that I certainly didn’t expect and wouldn’t have wanted them treated the way other witnesses are usually treated in Senate and Congressional hearings, not necessarily because they are religious leaders but because nobody really deserves to be treated with the kind of disrespect that is usually characteristic of these hearings.

Three hundred years worth of Catholic guilt pretty much explains why we tend to tiptoe in the presence of religious leaders. We’ve all been conditioned to think of them as royalty. I came from a family of Catholic religious zealots and my grandmother had this thing about treating bishops and priests like they were higher species of nature and we were unworthy to even breathe the same air they were ingesting. Besides, it’s just unthinkable to imagine anyone trashing the same people who listen to our confessions and sprinkle holy water over our heads.

I am one of those who spoke harshly against Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of the Diocese of Butuan for openly soliciting a 4x4 vehicle as a birthday gift from former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I will not take back my criticism of the bishop nor apologize for calling the bishop’s act shameless. What I riled about is not disputed, which is that de Dios Pueblos wrote a cloying letter to Arroyo asking for a birthday present worth around a million pesos.

What is currently furiously being “rewritten” and “reframed” for better context is the so-called social dimension of the donations of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to the Catholic bishops (including those vehicles). I think Archbishop Oscar Cruz already provided the only suitable context to the whole issue: he refused offers of similar donations in the past because, in so many words, the end simply does not justify the means.

I am not buying all these recent attempts to paint the bishops and the Catholic Church as hapless victims of PCSO Chairperson Margarita Juico and the media. There is a Commission on Audit report which details the various donations of the PCSO to “preferred bishops and dioceses.” There is a smoking gun in the form of an official letter written by Pueblos. There are actual vehicles; they may not be Pajeros, but they are SUVs just the same. These facts were not and are not being disputed.

What the recent events have illustrated so clearly is that our bishops still wield formidable power in this country, or at least they are still allowed to project that impression in public. When it comes down to it, there are very few leaders in this country with the grit and gumption to stand up to a prince of the Catholic Church, again, at least publicly.

Thanks to a brilliant public relations strategy, our bishops are on their way to recovering whatever they have lost in the recent skirmish. Why, the campaign to raise money so that the vehicles they have returned to the PCSO could be replaced is gaining some ground—in a two days’ time they were able to raise enough to buy one SUV. The fact that the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest social institutions in the country (for instance, they own a sizable block of shares in the Bank of the Philippine Islands for crying out loud), is being glossed over.

As my septuagenarian neighbor is wont to say—that’s how things are in this country, subject to the so-called gulong ng palad (wheel of fate). One day you are down, the next day you are up.

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte’s imminent exoneration is a classic example. Just two weeks ago, she was widely criticized for publicly pummeling Sheriff Abe Andres for not heeding her “request“ to postpone a demolition of a squatter colony in her city. People were talking about a possible suspension, even removal from public office and a possible disbarment from the Philippine Bar. Fickle public opinion has since then turned in her favor and there were even quarters that hailed her as a heroine.

Informed sources say that Duterte will probably just get a gentle slap in the hand and will be allowed to resume her post with a little admonition to manage her anger better.

And the same can probably be said of the fortunes of former President Arroyo who is probably the most vilified figure in the Philippines today. There is something that people should be cognizant about—there is only so much demonizing one can make, particularly if the object is a woman with a certain enigma. She is currently being painted out as a demon but given our relatively short memory—which probably explains why there is always new dirt being unearthed every couple of months - and the fact that Arroyo can easily package herself as an underdog (she catapulted to the top of the senatorial race on her first attempt at national politics on the strength of her physical resemblance to superstar Nora Aunor, remember?) raises possibilities of a political comeback.

I bet Arroyo’s camp is also biding their time. Given the rising levels of disillusionment towards the Aquino administration, it is just a matter of time before the Arroyo camp begins to go on an attack mode. And I have no doubt that they will when Aquino becomes vulnerable.

A measure of the growing disillusionment is the way pronouncements such as the ones made recently by Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas on leadership is poised to become viral. I was at a meeting last Saturday where photocopies of the Philippine Star article that quoted the Archbishop’s musings, widely regarded as a dig on President Aquino’s weakness, were circulated.

Speaking at a Rotary Club function, Villegas was quoted as saying that “leadership without vision is treachery to the governed. Integral leadership also means setting the path towards the future…. Those who set their hearts on the plow cannot keep looking back. Leadership is moving forward with excitement. The task of the leader is not only to stay clean and live by integrity,” he was supposed to have said.

According to Villegas “Integrity is a great capital asset in leadership but it is unfortunately not enough… The man of integrity must also be integral. Leadership is not just about moral ascendancy. It takes more than integrity of character to become a leader. Leadership is vision-setting too.”


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