Bernardo M. Villegas
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Teaching Authority of the Church (Part 1)

             Some amount of controversy surrounded a pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) last February 25 in commemoration of the EDSA Power Revolution.  Some members of the Catholic laity and a few priests criticized the letter as crossing the line between providing moral and spiritual guidance and interfering in partisan politics.  They disagreed with the clear assertion contained in the Letter, signed by His Excellency Pablo Virgilio David, D.D., Bishop of Kalookan and President of CBCP, which stated that “We have no ambition of appropriating for ourselves your distinct role as laity in the just ordering of society, or do we intend to usurp the role of the government.  We are here to provide moral and spiritual guidance, in accord with our mission of proclaiming the truth from our faith.”  In fact, the title of the Pastoral Letter is a quote from the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 8, verse 32 “The truth will set you free.”

            I want to stress from the outset that I have no intention of endorsing any presidential candidate through this clarificatory article on the role of the Catholic Bishops in giving spiritual and moral guidance to us the lay faithful and the Catholic clergy.  My only purpose is to share with my fellow Catholics my more than fifty years of discerning the teachings of the Church on social, economic, and political matters, especially through the social encyclicals.  This is not the first nor the last time that the CBCP will exercise their teaching authority on secular affairs.  In fact, in the pastoral letter in question, they made reference to the Post-Election Statement that members of the CBCP made on February 13, 1986, on the “systematic disenfranchisement of voters, widespread and massive vote-buying, deliberate tampering of election returns, intimidation, harassment, terrorism and murder.”  At that time, they were not meddling in partisan politics.  They were merely stating facts that were obvious to any objective observer. We can be sure that there will be other future occasions in which we should expect the Bishops to enlighten us spiritually and morally on matters related to politics or economics.

            Did the Bishops really go out of bounds and in the words of one of the critics “openly meddled with politics”?  From my long years of experience as an economist trying to understand  the role of the teaching authority of the Church in guiding us practitioners of the so-called “dismal science”, especially through the numerous social encyclicals that date back to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, I can categorically say that the Filipino Bishops were not interfering in politics and were just exercising their duty of giving guidance about the truth, whether theological, philosophical or empirical.  In fact, Rerum Novarum was a perfect example of the Roman Pontiff giving doctrinal guidance about the relationships between Capital and Labor, an ever occurring topic over more than 100 years of industrialization, without hesitating to point out empirically observable phenomena and events that go much beyond just articulating dogmatic or moral principles. A reading of the Encyclical will show clearly that the Pope did not stop at making motherhood statements.  He showed that he was very familiar with the harsh realities of life in society.  That is exactly what the Filipino Bishops also did by writing their Pastoral Letter. They said nothing but the truth, the whole truth.

            In the third paragraph of the Encyclical, Pope Leo XIII did not mince any word in severely castigating the business owners and employers of that period of unbridled capitalism.  Let me quote the Pontiff, “In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class:  for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place.  Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion.  Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.  The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men.  To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of the comparative few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

            No impartial judge can say that the Pope was limiting his teaching to dogmatic or moral guidance.   He was clearly citing observable, empirical facts that go beyond principles such as those on which he elaborated in later parts of the Encyclical, such as the principle of subsidiarity, the principle of solidarity and the concept of the common good.  If we are to follow the logic of those who objected to the Pastoral Letter of February 25, 2022, the Pope was meddling in partisan politics that separates the laborers and the capitalists, the very foundation of the distinction between the many forms of the labor movement and the neo-liberal Conservative politicians who defend the rights of the capitalists.

            Those stinging words of Pope Leo XIII, addressed to morally culpable individuals, have a parallel in the equally empirical observations of the  Filipino Bishops criticizing some aspects of today’s  political environment leading to the May 9, 2022 elections:  “…We are appalled by the blatant and subtle distortion, manipulation, cover-up, repression and  abuse of the truth, like:  historical revisionism—the distortion of history or its denial; the proliferation of fake news and false stories: disinformation—the seeding of false information and narratives in order to influence the opinion of the people, to hide the truth, to malign and blackmail people.  There are troll farms which sow the virus of lies.”  Only a blind or biased observer would deny these indubitable facts.  In fact, anyone familiar with social media would know that troll farms peddling lies or half-truths started in earnest during the 2016 elections that led to the Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.

            Going back to Rerum Novarum, did the severe criticisms of the sins of capitalists and employers mean that Pope Leo XIII was in complete solidarity with the working class and against the business owners or employers.  By no means.  In fact, the very first philosophical and moral principle that the Pope clarified was clearly in favor of the capitalists.  The first moral guidance he gave to us economists was to respect the right to private property.  His first doctrinal criticism was aimed at the Socialists.  After exposing abuses of unbridled capitalism, he immediately fired his first salvo against the ideological fathers of Stalin and Mao Zedung: “To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.  They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy.  But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”  The Pope then proceeds to explain that the right to private property originates from the very nature of human beings and the family.  He, however, points out that this right is not absolute and must be used to promote the common good under the principle of solidarity.

            Exactly ninety years later, St. John Paul II returned to the ever burning  topic of   the relationship between labor and capital.  In the Encyclical Letter “Laborem Exercens” (On Human Work), he presented strong philosophical and theological arguments defending the “priority of labor over capital.”    Distinguishing between the subjective and objective dimensions of work, the Pope made it clear that it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it Is that is done by man—even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest “service’, as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work.  He then does not limit himself to the philosophical justifications for the priority of work over capital.  He, like Pope Leo XIII, makes empirical observations about how in some economic systems—whether socialist or capitalist—work has been understood and treated as a sort of “merchandise” that the worker—especially the industrial worker—sells to the employer, who at the same time is the possessor of capital, that is to say, all the working tools and means that make production possible.  Although he admits that many changes for the better have been made on this matter, the danger of treating work as a special kind of “merchandise”, or as an impersonal “force” needed for production always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.  In the Encyclical Centissimus Annus, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the issuance of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, St. John Paul II makes an empirical observation of an evil in a market economy, which he called “consumerism,” the belief that an individual’s value is measured by what he or she possesses materially rather than what he or she is  as a human being.

            In Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II goes beyond issuing moral guidance to those who are involved in the agricultural sector.  He criticizes those who do not appreciate that agricultural work involves considerable difficulties, including unremitting and sometimes exhausting physical effort.  He laments the fact that agricultural people are made to feel that they are social outcasts, thus speeding up the phenomenon of their mass exodus from the countryside to the cities and unfortunately to still more dehumanizing living conditions.  Added to this are the lack of adequate professional training and of proper equipment, the spread of a certain individualism, and also objectively unjust situations.  He then enumerates a litany of concrete examples of unjust practices based on factual observations.  “In certain developing countries, millions of people are forced to cultivate the land belonging to others and are exploited by the big landowners, without any hope of ever being able to gain possession of even a small piece of land of their own.  There is a lack of forms of legal protection for the agricultural workers themselves and for their families in case of old age, sickness or unemployment.  Long days of hard physical work are paid miserably.  Land which could be cultivated is left abandoned by owners. Legal titles to possession of a small portion of land that someone has personally cultivated for years are disregarded or left defenseless against the ‘land hunger’ of more powerful individuals or groups.”  And so on and so forth.  It is obvious from these examples that moral and spiritual guidance cannot be given by the Teaching Authority of the Church without getting down to “brass tacks.”  There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Filipino Bishops criticizing specific abuses that are being committed by one or more groups involved in the coming national elections.  To be continued.