MANILA, Philippines – Signaling a thawing of relations between Church and State, President Benigno Aquino III turned up Saturday at the San Fernando de Dilao Parish Church in Paco, Manila, to hear Thanksgiving Mass for the elevation of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle to the College of Cardinals.
Cardinal Tagle, 55, acknowledged Mr. Aquino’s presence as he took the lectern to deliver his homily.
“I thank you all for [coming] . . . and our gathering has become more meaningful with the presence of the President of our nation, President Benigno Aquino III,” Tagle said.
The congregation applauded at the cardinal’s mention of the President’s name.
Tagle then went on to acknowledge other high-ranking government officials, diplomats, and representatives of religious orders who came for the Mass.
President Aquino also went to the Thanksgiving Mass for the canonization of the Philippines second saint, Pedro Calungsod, in Cebu City on Friday. Mr. Aquino and Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal were seen embracing briefly after the Mass.
Relations between the Church and Malacañang have iced up since Mr. Aquino began pressing for passage of a reproductive health bill that would slow down the growth of the country’s population.
Actually the President and Tagle are “very good personal friends,” according to Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, who was spiritual adviser to Mr. Aquino’s mother, the late former President Corazon Aquino.
Besides the President, his sisters Ballsy and Viel also showed up for the Mass, concelebrated by Manila Archbishop Emeritus Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales and attended by bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders.
In his efforts to give Filipinos universal access to family planning services, Mr. Aquino earned the ire of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which is leading the opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill.
The RH bill remains stuck in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, with the latter unable to muster a quorum to have the measure adopted before adjournment this month.
Tagle shunned divisive temporal issues and instead preached from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, dealing with eternal unity between God and his creation.
He said God Himself descended on earth to dwell with mankind through Jesus Christ.
“This is pure grace—God in our midst,” said the cardinal, explaining that Christ represented the “life-giving water… that comes from the throne of God” in the City of God “where light abounds and there is no darkness.”
After the Mass, the two cardinals went down from the altar and approached Mr. Aquino, who was seated on the left front pew with Vice President Jejomar Binay and his spouse, former Makati Mayor Elenita Binay; and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and spouse, Cristina, a former Ambassador to the Vatican.
They were all smiles as they exchanged pleasantries.
The beaming Cardinal and President engaged in small talk during a photo opportunity on the steps of the altar.
Contacted by phone, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad hinted at the significance of Mr. Aquino’s presence at the Mass.
Asked if the warm reception accorded by Tagle to Mr. Aquino signaled a thaw in relations between the Aquino administration and the Church, Abad said:
“Cardinal Tagle and President Aquino go along quite well. Partly, it’s generational; partly, because they share the same moderate views on social issues.”
Asked “how far back” the relationship began, Abad said, “I am not sure if their acquaintance goes all the way back, but somehow, they seem to connect well.”
Abad revealed what some quarters believe to be the ties that bind Tagle and the President.
“Cardinal Tagle is quite close to fellow Jesuit, Fr. Catalino Arevalo, who was the spiritual adviser of ‘Cory’ Aquino, and now President Noy,” said Abad, a close friend and top political lieutenant of Mr. Aquino.
Asked to confirm the thawing of relations, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said: “Relations have always been good if not warm. Differences of sincerely held opinion don’t mean relations are bad.”
To expedite the plenary action by the House, the President has summoned congressional officials to a meeting over lunch in Malacañang on Monday.
But in an ambush interview in Mandaue City, Cebu on Friday, Mr. Aquino, appeared to have discarded his confrontational stance, preferring to let lawmakers decide the fate of the bill.
“I think, I have stated publicly (that) I have a position—I’m pro-Responsible Parenthood—that this is a matter of conscience. We all have a value system, a belief system, and we must listen to what our conscience says. So the party will not impose, and our allies (will listen to) each other’s conscience. They should be the ones to decide. But the suggestion is to decide,” said Mr. Aquino.
Asked about the talking points for the meeting on Monday, he disclosed that first, he would make sure that the chamber would get the needed quorum, and second, “we will make sure that there will be a decision.”
“If we leave this hanging, it would have a divisive factor. But, you know, we hope to get past this division. There should be a decision either way. Whatever they pass, that’s what the executive will enforce,” said the President.
Mr. Aquino also had second thoughts about certifying the bill as urgent.
“That’s why we have to talk to see whether we should (still certify it as) urgent. As a general rule, you all know that I am parsimonious when it cones to certifying bills as urgent in consonance with procedures laid by in the Constitution.”