ROME — Although the Catholic Church officially discourages clergy and religious from serving in public office, in many countries Catholic actors nevertheless play key roles in forging peace accords, guaranteeing access to safe water and other humanitarian aims, and lighting a fire under the international community to get involved.
That activism builds on a grand history, from popes defying emperors and kings in the Middle Ages, to modern examples such as clergy in Poland joining the Catholic population in rising up against the Communist system, as well as the vast Catholic mobilization in the Philippines to overthrow the corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
In recent days, examples from around the world suggest that this tradition of political engagement is alive and well.
The Philippines and the war on drugs
The Filipino House of Representatives on March 10 approved a bill which, if endorsed by the Senate, would reimpose the death penalty for drug-related crimes, among others. Reinstating the death penalty was one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s major campaign promises.
On Wednesday, several key Filipino lawmakers were expelled by the House leadership after voting against the restoration of the death penalty.
According to local reports, Duterte’s “war on drugs” and extra-judicial killings have generated thousand of casualties since last July, and he’s promised to execute “five or six” criminals per day once the death penalty is reintroduced.
If passed by the Senate and signed by the president, death will be carried out by hanging, firing squad or lethal injection for selling, trading and transporting drugs. Possessing drugs would lead to life imprisonment.
The Catholic bishops are having none of it, calling on the faithful to oppose the bill in any way possible. For instance, Bishop Joel Baylon of the Diocese of Legazpi called on the youth to take to social media.
“Use your capacity to post on social media against extra-judicial killings, the death penalty, and be online missionaries of God,” Baylon said addressing them during the 8th Diocesan Youth Way of the Cross at Kawa-Kawa Hill in Ligao City, Albay on Saturday.
“We do not wish the sinners to die… because they [can be brought] back to the fold of law and of God. We are hoping that peace should reign again,” he said, according to Rappler.
Needless to say, the fact that the bishops are opposing the execution of six people a day does not mean they’re encouraging recreational drugs: “To the youth, don’t welcome drugs because it will not help you, but destroy you. So, influence your friends not to take drugs.”
On the day the bill won approval by the House of Representatives, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said that the state had been given consent to kill.
“We, your bishops, are overcome with grief, but we are not defeated, nor shall we be silenced,” he said in a statement.
“In the midst of Lent, we prepare to celebrate the triumph of Life over Death, and while we grieve that the lower House has voted for death, our faith assures us that life will triumph,” he added.
Fighting famine in Africa
Several countries on the continent are currently experiencing food shortages, the product either of severe drought or ethnic conflicts, or a combination of both — and in all these countries, Catholics are on the front lines of relief efforts.
The United Nations recently called the situation “the worst humanitarian crisis since 1946,” with 20 million people across Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and northeast Nigeria currently risking starvation and famine.
United Nations humanitarian coordinator Stephen O’Brien told the global body’s Security Council that, “Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.”
He called the crisis the largest in the history of the U.N., which was founded in 1945, and was specific in his request to the council: “$4.4 billion by July” to combat extreme hunger in these four countries.
In Somalia, one of the countries affected by the Trump administration’s executive order on migrants and refugees, an estimated 6.2 million people – almost half the country – are in need of urgent material aid.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, Bishop Giorgio Bertin, the Apostolic Administrator of Mogadishu, noted that when people see the sheep, goats and camels dying in the fields, they know that they will come next.
People “feel particularly desperate,” he said.
He also noted that Caritas Somalia, Catholic Relief Services (CRS the international aid agency of the U.S. bishops) as well as other Catholic charities and the Consolata Sisters were responding to the crisis.
Caritas‘s wide-range programs focus on hunger, emergency relief, education, health and aid development.
In a statement released last month, CRS said it was mobilizing resources to respond to the humanitarian emergency in this country.
“We’re seeing a lot more Somalis arriving in camps for the internally displaced,” said Lane Bunkers, the CRS country representative for Somalia and Kenya. “These are usually used as safe havens from conflict, but now they’re getting a huge influx of people from across the countryside who simply don’t have enough to eat.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that Somalia is a largely Muslim country, and that in 2015 there were 3 priests and four nuns working in a country that has an estimated 100 Catholic faithful.
Though the Catholic population in the other three countries varies, similar parallels can be drawn between the crisis and what the church is doing to help those urgently in need.
CAFOD, the official aid agency for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, recently launched a campaign focused exclusively in this region, urging for donations to help provide food and water to those affected by the emergency.
Both in the Philippines and in these African countries the Church could look the other way, because as many argue when they call for a separation of the Church and State, it should focus on having people in the pews.
Yet the fight for social justice and the “field hospital” Church that aids those in need is an instance in which priests, religious sisters and the faithful are in fact, doing what elected officials should do: from defending the integrity of every human life to guaranteeing the human right to drinkable water.