FOR years, something that Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal did in 2000 and early 2001 remained a puzzle.
In December 2000, the political crisis that shook the second year of Joseph Estrada’s presidency was approaching its peak. The House of Representatives had impeached him in October. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had quit her Cabinet appointment as social welfare secretary. Estrada faced growing pressure to answer questions about unexplained wealth, including some P414 million that a governor claimed to have given him, which had allegedly come from illegal gambling operators.
Estrada denied the accusations, but he was quickly losing support in Congress. Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin said that the president had “lost the moral ascendancy to govern.” As the Senate convened for Estrada’s impeachment trial, Cardinal Sin warned that they risked God’s wrath if they found him innocent. That was vintage Cardinal Sin.
In the midst of that uproar, Cardinal Vidal held his silence. His friendship with Estrada was well-known by then, though not entirely understood. How could Cardinal Vidal be friends with a man who flaunted his larger-than-life appetites for wine, women, and wealth? What advice had the cardinal given that controversial president, and how much of it had the president taken?
On Dec. 22, 2000, SunStar Cebu reported that President Estrada and Cardinal Vidal were the newsroom’s choices for Men of the Year. Estrada had “done more than any other public figure in recent history to get us thinking about the separation of Church and State, the strengths and frailties of our Constitution and laws, and what we should demand of our leaders. Or of ourselves, as voters.” About Cardinal Vidal, we said, “Sometimes, in the midst of confusion, it is not the jeering crowd that one seeks out for counsel, but the even-tempered guidance of one who has taken the trouble to listen.”
Within a month after that, Estrada’s impeachment trial at the Senate would fall to pieces. After 11 senators voted to block evidence of the president’s bank accounts, Cardinal Vidal said he was saddened and that the decision was “a major obstacle to the sincere search for the whole truth.” But he also, unlike Cardinal Sin, firmly decided to stay away from the rallies that called for Estrada to resign.
“I am not dividing the people,” Cardinal Vidal said. “If I am only on one side, I cannot appeal anymore to the other side.” Of Estrada himself, the cardinal added: “I can always talk to him and call his attention but I still have to respect his decision and position.”
It was a milder position than the one that, 15 years earlier, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) took after the snap elections in the final days of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In a statement signed by Cardinal Vidal, who was then CBCP president, the bishops condemned the “unparalleled fraudulence” of the February 1986 elections, which Marcos had claimed he won.
Yet even then, Cardinal Vidal’s gentle use of his influence was apparent. The CBCP asked its flock “to form their judgment” about the elections and “if in faith they see things as we the bishops do,” called on them “to pray together, reason together, decide together, act together, always to the end that the truth prevail, that the will of the people be fully respected.”
Our notions of influence and authority have changed in the years since Cardinal Vidal slowly faded from the public’s view. Some of our more influential public figures now tend to swagger, they like to say what used to be unspeakable, because that’s the kind of performance the crowds applaud. Cardinal Vidal’s patience, his belief in the possibility of redemption, and his faith in our capacity to think and act will be missed. (@isoldeamante)