The Vatican “pressured” Filipino bishops to remain neutral and stay away from calls for the ouster of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2005, according to confidential US Embassy cables quoting a “Church contact.”
The papal nuncio at the time, Archbishop Antonio Franco, made it clear to the bishops during their annual meeting that the Vatican “did not support popular uprisings as a method to remove a government,” according to the US cables recently released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
The Vatican appeal was also reported by the Inquirer in its story in 2005 about the meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which discussed the political crisis confronting Arroyo.
In their pastoral letter after the meeting, the bishops said they were not politicians and that “with Pope Benedict XVI we do not believe in the ‘intrusion’ into politics on the part of the hierarchy.” They made no call for Arroyo to step down.
Interviewed by the Inquirer on Monday, Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, who attended that meeting, said there was no way the pastoral letter could have been inspired by the Vatican.
“I know this because I am an insider,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the CBCP statement was a plenary decision made after two-thirds of the CBCP members voted not to support calls for Arroyo to step down. Cruz said he was one of the one-third who voted against the majority.
A US Embassy cable (http://www.wikileaks.org/cable/2005/07/05MANILA3202.html) dated July 12, 2005, said that the Church “contact,” Bishop Romulo de la Cruz of Antique, told an embassy political officer that the papal nuncio had advised the bishops to stay clear of political entanglements in line with Vatican policy.
Franco was papal nuncio from 1999 to 2006 and attended Arroyo’s swearing-in as the new President after the ouster of Joseph Estrada following the January 2001 “Edsa People Power II” uprising.
According to the cable, Franco urged the CBCP “to be cautious, keeping in mind that it should refrain from political activism.”
Another US Embassy cable said that Msgr. Luis Montemayor, country director for the Philippines under the Vatican Secretariat of State, had confirmed that the Vatican, through Franco, “pressured the (CBCP) to remain neutral in the controversy surrounding Arroyo.”
“(Montemayor) told us that although the Vatican’s preferences on the matter had never been a secret, Franco had for the first time … explained in no uncertain terms to the CBCP that the Vatican did not support popular uprisings as a method to remove a government,” the cable added.
Montemayor, now an archbishop, is currently papal nuncio to the West African states of Senegal, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, while Franco is the current papal nuncio to Israel. De la Cruz is currently the bishop of Kidapawan.
Montemayor emphasized that he had always opposed the clergy’s involvement in popular uprisings against the government, according to the cable.
“In 2001, with the protests against Estrada, I pressured the bishops to stay neutral. They wouldn’t listen to me,” the cable quoted Montemayor as saying.
Montemayor was further quoted as saying that the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, who died in June 2005, had been “a major obstacle” in the Vatican’s policy against political intervention by the clergy.
“We didn’t see eye to eye on the issue,” Montemayor said. “Sin felt it was his moral responsibility toward the people to intervene but we must support democracy and due process. Otherwise we are opening Pandora’s box.”
Montemayor suggested that with Sin’s death, “the current bishops are more amenable to instruction from the Vatican,” according to the cable.
Support from majority
In his account of the CBCP meeting, De la Cruz said the bishops issued the pastoral statement against intruding into politics “in part because of the papal nuncio’s comments” at the meeting, according to the US Embassy cable.
De la Cruz said the vast majority of the bishops supported Franco’s remarks, though several left-leaning bishops—who were urging that the group take an anti-Arroyo stance—believed the papal nuncio had “interfered” in the deliberations, according to the cable.
In a “comment,” the US Embassy cable said: “With the end of the Cardinal Sin era, the Church seems to be moving towards more of a focus on pastoral matters. Sin was very much an activist in the political sphere….
“Although Sin was close to John Paul II, especially on doctrinal matters, the Vatican was not fully comfortable with his political activities, according to contacts. The Church at this point seems to be in a phase of ‘Sin-fatigue’ and … seems very much open to advice from the Vatican on the need to keep out of politics in a direct way.”
In another comment, a cable said: “The Holy See is hesitant to get out in front of its bishops in opposing local political leaders, but the Vatican is also loath to see clergy take active political roles.
“In fact, the principle of avoiding direct political involvement is enshrined in canon law, even if not always followed. Unlike in matters of ‘faith and morals,’ the Holy See’s control over local bishops on political matters is uneven.”
Archbishop Cruz, who currently chairs the CBCP National Tribunal of Appeals, told the Inquirer that the Vatican was never cited by the bishops in making their collective decision during their 2005 conference.
The CBCP plenary is the highest decision-making body of the Philippine Church hierarchy.
“I don’t think the Vatican will involve itself in such a sociopolitical issue, which is local in significance and implication,” Cruz said. “The Church is universal and global and would not get involved in such an issue.”
The prelate said he also worked closely with the late Sin “so I would know if there was pressure coming from the Vatican.”
While WikiLeaks exposes some cases, “which are realities,” Cruz said, “the public must not take it hook, line and sinker … we should also be judicious.”