The protégé of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates “Soc” Villegas, was elected president of the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Sunday amid a continuing conflict between the Church and the Aquino administration on the controversial reproductive health (RH) law.
At 52, Villegas will lead the 96 active and 40 honorary members of the bishops’ collegial body when Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma ends his term on Dec. 1. To succeed Villegas as vice president is Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles.
While Villegas is known to have had strong ties with the late President Corazon Aquino, the mother of the incumbent Chief Executive, he is perceived as one who will not give in to the whims of the current administration.
“One thing is certain, the archbishop will talk as needed. He will not keep quiet,” Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz told the Inquirer over the phone on Sunday.
“This man is intelligent and courageous. He will exercise his [pastoral duties] and will put into action his qualifications.” Cruz said.
Cruz cited a pronouncement that Villegas made amid the debate on the RH bill last year, which he noted “had angered the Palace.”
“My dear youth, contraception is corruption. The use of government money, taxpayers’ money to give out contraceptive pills is corruption. Contraceptive pills teach us it is all right to have sex with someone provided you are safe from babies,” Villegas said then.
Villegas’ statement denouncing President Aquino for supporting the RH measure was proof that he would continue to lead the Church in fighting other measures that would compromise Catholic values, Cruz said.
“This means that he will speak when needed. He will speak his mind according to Church teachings,” he said. “I know what I am talking about because when he was appointed the secretary of Cardinal Sin, we were already [working] together.”
Cruz, likewise a former CBCP president and ex-archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, said he had seen how Villegas worked and he was confident that the prelate would do a great job.
Ball in Palace court
Fr. Francis Lucas, executive secretary of the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Social Communication and Mass Media, also has the same expectations of Villegas.
“He will surely stand by the Church teachings no matter what,” he said in a text message to the Inquirer. “I suppose the ball is in the Palace’s court since Archbishop Socrates was close to the late President Cory Aquino.”
But he added that the Church was always open to listen and dialogue to try to understand if certain issues were truly for the common good.
The CBCP announced the results of the election on the second day of its three-day annual plenary assembly at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Paco, Manila.
Palma was still eligible for another two-year term as the head of the Church body but prior to the assembly, he declared his intention of giving up his post so that he could attend to his pastoral duties in the Cebu archdiocese, which would host the International Eucharistic Congress in 2016.
Villegas, who was ordained priest by Sin in 1985 and auxiliary bishop of Manila in 2001, will have a two-year tenure. Valles will also serve for two years. But by tradition, incumbent officials may be reelected to a second term.
The assembly also elected Sunday Fr. Marvin Mejia as secretary general, succeeding Msgr. Joselito Asis.
“We extend our congratulations to Archbishop Villegas and wish him well as he faces new challenges as president of the CBCP,” said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.
Valte said the Palace looked forward to “future engagements under his leadership.”
The election of Villegas came two days before the Supreme Court opens oral arguments on petitions seeking to nullify the controversial Republic Act No. 10354, or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act.
The 12 petitions against the law included one filed by the son of CBCP legal counsel Jo Aurea Imbong. Ranged against them are six petitions backing the law, filed by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, Sen. Pia Cayetano and three former health secretaries, among others.
RA 10354, which mandates the state to provide the poor with reproductive health services, including access to contraceptives, and sex education to schoolchildren, was signed by President Aquino on Dec. 21 last year.