There is no Philippine law that prevents Fr. Ed Panlilio from running for public office, unlike in Mexico, where the constitution prohibits members of the clergy from holding public office. Ironically, what could stop Panlilio from running is his own Catholic Church, which has been ambivalent about “political” priests. Panlilio has in fact been suspended from “priestly duties” since he became governor of Pampanga province.
I use quotation marks for the word “political” because the Catholic Church has actually been political for 2,000 years, with popes themselves wielding great political power, while cardinals and bishops have actively intervened to make, or break, kings and queens and presidents.
In the last half century, the Vatican has set its sights on liberal priests. Up to 1980, canon law allowed priests to run if they had the permission of their bishops, but there were tensions here as well, especially if the bishops were conservative and the priests running for office were liberals. In 1980, Pope John Paul II mandated that priests should withdraw from electoral politics, and in 1983, a new canonical law went into effect with a broader prohibition on priests taking up “public positions entailing participation in the exercise of civil authority.”
Nicaragua came to my mind almost immediately when I first read about a possible Panlilio candidacy. The late 1960s and the entire 1970s were a time of political ferment for the Catholic Church in Latin America and the Philippines because of harsh dictatorships. It was during these difficult times that liberation theology gained a strong following among both the religious and lay Catholics (as well as some Protestants). Liberation theology borrowed from Marxism, pointing out the structural roots of poverty, from US imperialism to the greed and corruption of local landlords and capitalists.
Liberation theology talked about a “preferential option” for the poor. Many religious and lay people went to serve urban and rural poor communities, getting involved in community organizing and militant politics. The film “Sister Stella L.,” whose 25th anniversary is being celebrated this year, was based on the lives of Catholic sisters in the Philippines who worked in urban poor communities, joining pickets and rallies and investigating human rights abuses, all amid a repressive martial law regime.
Liberation theology was also strong in Nicaragua, which was ruled by the Somoza family for several decades. As in the Philippines, Catholic religious were among those who opposed the dictatorship. This included a Maryknoll priest, Fr. Miguel D’Escoto, who headed the US-based Nicaraguan solidarity movement.
The Sandinistas overthrew Somoza in 1979 and the new government appointed Father Miguel foreign minister. He resisted his superiors’ orders for him to give up his government position and stayed on as foreign minister until 1990, when the Sandinistas lost power in elections. In 2007, when the Sandinistas came back into power, he was appointed as government adviser by President Daniel Ortega.
Father Miguel was not the type to mince words, calling Ronald Reagan a “butcher” and George W. Bush a “liar.” Last year, he became president of the UN General Assembly, and has taken a more diplomatic approach in his declarations.
There were two other Nicaraguan priests, the brothers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, who clashed with their superiors, all the way up to the Pope. Ernesto, internationally respected as a poet and writer, was Nicaragua’s minister of culture from 1979 to 1988. Fernando was minister of education and launched one of the most successful adult literacy programs in the world. Both did not step down from their posts, arguing that the new canonical law came into effect after they had been appointed to the Nicaraguan government.
In 1983, when the Pope visited Nicaragua, there was tension when at one event, Ernesto Cardenal approached the Pope and knelt to kiss his ring. The Pope pulled back his hand and shook his finger at the priest.
Despite what seems to be a hardline Vatican stand, there’s actually a Catholic bishop who ran for president and won. This is Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, who also has roots in liberation theology. He trained as a teacher, and then became an SVD (Society of the Divine Word) priest. He served as a missionary in Ecuador and then returned to Paraguay, only to be expelled by the Stroessner military regime because of his activism. He returned in 1987, two years before Stroessner was ousted, and stayed on to serve Paraguay. He was outspoken on issues of social justice, eventually becoming bishop of the diocese of San Pedro.
In 2006, this “Bishop of the Poor” decided to run for president and applied for laicization or a temporary leave from the priesthood, but his request was turned down because, his superiors said, bishops were not eligible for laicization. Lugo decided to run anyway and was suspended. He ran against a woman candidate of the conservative Colorado Party. Lugo won in the 2008 elections, breaking the Colorado Party’s 62-year hold on Paraguayan politics. The Vatican has since granted Lugo’s request for laicization.
Lugo is one of several leftist presidents now in power in Latin America, refusing to accept any presidential salary because the money “belongs to more humble people.”
I should mention one last case here, from the United States, where a Jesuit, Fr. Robert Drinan, was Massachusetts congressman from 1971 to 1980. He was a liberal Democrat and ran on an anti-Vietnam War platform, unseating a congressman who had held office for 14 terms. (You read right, 14 terms, not 14 years—the US has no limits on the number of terms you can hold office.)
Drinan was outspoken, advocated Nixon’s impeachment and pushed for government funding for family planning and abortion. But he gave up his post in 1980 after Pope John Paul II banned priests from running for office. Drinan remained active in teaching, and continued to speak out on political issues. He died in 2007.
Should Father Ed run or not? I’m ambivalent too. I respect the Kaya Natin team of alternative politicians but I worry about how effective Catholic priests can be, laicized or not. A recent article by Jonathan Chow, “Different Standards, Different Faiths” on the website “Religion, Politics and Globalization Project” (rpgp.berkeley.edu) looks at what seems to be a double standard, where Protestant ministers can run for public office without too many eyebrows being raised while people — from popes to bishops, Protestants or Catholics — hesitate when it comes to Catholic priests assuming public office.
Chow notes that there is a difference between Catholic and Protestant clergy, the former having to obey the Vatican, which technically is a “temporal state that is also a theocratic monarchy.” If Panlilio were to run, he would have to be very clear about his stand on a number of issues, from family planning to social justice, and if he has views different from the positions of the Vatican or the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, will he able to remain independent?