IN 2016, sociologist Walden Bello spoke of the failure of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to interpret the signs of the times and thus led the flock in a moral battle against Duterte. In his words: “A recent Reuters article portrayed the Catholic Church as an institution intimidated by the new Philippine president and very careful in voicing its views on the bloody campaign of extrajudicial execution of drug users conducted by him. Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz is quoted as saying that “the CBCP has to be very careful because it might unnecessarily offend a good number of people with goodwill, who are Catholics themselves.”

After four years we finally got the pastoral letter that we seemingly desire. One that has bolder assertions. It may not yet be a signal of a tougher CBCP but at least it has shown a sign of change. Written by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, who is the acting president of the CBCP, it warns people that their complacency disables them from detecting many ominous realities abounding in the country. The current CBCP president Archbishop Valles of Davao is on-leave.

David begins with the letter of Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar who made an “ardent request for prayers for Hongkong, on account of the signing into law of a new National Security Act.” The Bishop of Kalookan then describes what has happened in Hong Kong as “eerily familiar” because actually “we are in a similar situation.” He continues enumerating things which the CBCP in the recent past would have some reservations talking about in public. For example the passage of the anti-terror law and the non-renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN. As to the latter, David asks: “have we not felt the chilling effect of the closure of the country’s biggest broadcast network, the ABS-CBN, after being denied renewal of its franchise? Is it not evident to us how this pattern of intimidation creates an atmosphere detrimental to the freedom of expression in our country?”

The pastoral letter emphasizes somewhere near its end that “while a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water.” This is the description of the Filipino nation which many have been waiting for to hear from our bishops. And David has expressed in words what the “conference president on-leave” and many other bishops could or would not. Indeed we are like frogs inside a pot that shall be boiled anytime soon.

The pastoral letters of the CBCP in the recent past were well-measured, safe and trying to sound conciliatory. Sadly, they have been perceived as forceless by those who would prefer a Church that is more brave and prophetic. Although I find it understandable why many bishops are afraid to go against the administration. Some would not admit that they are afraid. In the guise of taking the role of a peacemaker, even the more senior hierarchs would rather be silent or at least appear prayerful. Such a sad scenario where we have shepherds willing to bring their own sheep to the slaughterhouse.

Many analysts of Philippine Catholicism would say that pastoral letters speak for the whole conference. However, it would be intellectually dishonest not to admit that whoever writes the letter represents the episcopal conference. One may take up the challenge of studying all the pastoral letters and exhortations of the CBCP based on the conference president, and either validate or debunk my contention. I am saying this if only to give credit to Bishop Pablo “Ambo” David who has not been prevented by any baggage to move forward to that direction we desire our Church to take.

There is a right time and the right reason for “unity” but this cannot be in the darkest moment of human history where the delineation between good and evil is clear. And by the way the context where we are in is not a good time for us to ask that philosophical speculation who is not evil after all? Such a line may be a good brain tickler for adventurous philosophers and sociologists but it surely does not help advance our needed liberative cause.