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    Waning influence

Perhaps in no other election were the endorsements of various churches so ardently courted than in the May 10 national polls. Candidates of all colour and persuasion trooped to one religious organization after the other, promising everything under the sun just to get their leaders to give the all-important nod that would send their members – all of them claiming numbers upwards of two million voters – to shade their boxes in the ballot.

In the end, however, it was obvious that there was no church vote: save for the Iglesia ni Cristo, which endorsed then-candidate Benigno Aquino III, and the Catholic church, which endorsed no one. All the church organizations placed their bets on candidates who took a beating in the polls.

The lack of a “church vote” in the May 2010 elections is so glaring that one needs to ask if churches, particularly the Roman Catholic church, still has the moral ascendancy to influence government policies. There is no doubt that the Church is strong, but the fact that it chose not to endorse anyone now robs it of its clout in matters that have been traditionally important to it.

There are two areas in which the Catholic Church is currently trying to wield its power and moral persuasion, but as we are seeing, the public response has been mixed. The first and most controversial issue is jueteng, an age-old numbers game that has come back into the limelight because of the allegations of Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz that some government and police officials in very high positions have been on the take from its operators to the tune of hundreds of millions of pesos.

Now there is no doubt that taking such money is wrong; jueteng, after all, is illegal, and officials have traditionally been recipients of its bounty as a form of protection from law enforcers. But the numbers game has been in existence for so long that it is literally a way of life for many people and communities. Betting in juetengis second nature to many people, and it is so pervasive that people curse with it – Anak ng jueteng! [Son-of-a-jueteng!].

Therefore, there are now calls for government to legalize juetengand other forms of gambling, and it is being backed by a number of local government officials. One of them, Mayor Sara Duterte of Davao City (where the game is “last two” and not jueteng), explains that there are two reasons for this: one, government cannot lick it, and two, government stands to earn from it. If gambling lords rake in millions of pesos from illegal gambling, then legalizing it means taxes would have to be paid – taxes that could be used to push the country forward.

?The Catholic Church, however, strongly opposes this as it sees gambling in any form – legal or illegal – as immoral. It remains to be seen if its influence – or the diminishing value thereof – will keep government from taking a step forward and finally admitting that what it can’t beat, it might as well join.

A second issue in which the church’s waning influence is becoming obvious is reproductive health. As in gambling, the Catholic Church sees any form of artificial contraception as evil and immoral, and over the years it has succeeded in shooting down any attempt to include it in the government’s services to the people. Even something as simple as sex education in schools could not be implemented because of the howl the church hierarchy raised.

But now President Benigno Aquino has declared that government will provide contraceptives to poor couples who request it. Speaking in a satellite interview from the US where he was on a weeklong visit, Mr. Aquino said that government is “obligated to inform everybody of their responsibilities and their choices.”

“At the end of the day, government might provide assistance to those who are without means if they want to employ a particular method. I believe the couple will be in the best position to determine what is best for the family, how to space (the births), what methods they can rely on and so forth. They face the responsibility for the children that they bring in and government is willing to assist them,” the President said.

In a country with 92 million people – not all of them Catholic – family planning through artificial methods is a definite necessity. And now is the best time to implement the program because the person at the helm of government does not owe his position to the church. A government that is not beholden to anyone ought to be able to do right by is constituents, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.

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