Saturday, February 10, 2007

On the Public Stage

While some would like to see their bishops more engaged on issues of politics and policy, one Filipino bishop is recusing himself from the arena in advance of contentious national elections in May:

Speaking with candor at a media briefing on ecumenical dialogue, Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias said he was going through a "self-examination" to determine if he should continue being in the frontlines on political matters.

"Shall I continue or not? I am getting myself to answer this because this is dividing our own folk," said the 65-year-old prelate.

Tobias said answering the question was also related to his "own conversion" apparently brought about by an agreement among bishops not to directly involve themselves in political affairs.

Tobias is considered among the few "talking bishops" in the local Catholic hierarchy, along with Archbishop Oscar Cruz, and Bishops Deogracias Iñiguez, and Julio Xavier Labayen, and lately, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president.

Despite the label, these men of the cloth and their supporters explained that their involvement in social and political issues was clearly grounded on their responsibility as moral shepherds.

As per the CBCP [Filipino Bishops' Conference] agreement, Tobias said he was staying out of the frontlines, preferring instead that the Catholic laity lead the struggle against social injustices.

"If you notice, you don't see me often nowadays," he said in Filipino.

Observers within the Catholic hierarchy believe that the opinions of Tobias, Iñiguez, and Labayen on political issues were magnified by their affiliation to the Kilusang Makabansang Ekonomiya.

It's a coalition of people from the clergy, academe, and economics promoting a "nationalist" economy for the country. The three bishops act as spiritual advisers, but are normally thrown by the group in the frontline.

Despite his "self-examination," Tobias said he was not exactly abandoning his shepherding role on concrete social and political situations.

Staying behind the scenes, he said he would, for instance, encourage lay Catholics in his diocese to promote responsible voting in the May elections.

"We have to prepare our own people to vote wisely," he said.

On the opposite end of the engagement scale, one Australian cleric seems to be quite the multitasker.

Monsignor David Cappo isn't just vicar-general of the archdiocese of Adelaide and administrator of the cathedral in the Southern Australia capital, he's also head of the state Social Inclusion Board, in which capacity he's "demanded action" on improving mental health services there.

Cappo has challenged the Government to implement "the biggest reform agenda in Australia for at least 30 years".

He submitted a Social Inclusion Board report to the Government at the end of November.

Monsignor Cappo said he hoped for a response "within weeks, not months, because everyone knows how desperately we need this reform".

In a clear sign his close links to Mr Rann will not prevent him speaking out, Monsignor Cappo said mental health reform had become "a huge passion" and pledged to "keep agitating" if the Government did not accept and fully fund the board's recommendations.

A member of Cabinet's Executive Committee, he said that while ministers had their own priorities, it was "mental health's time".

"I really feel that mental health reform should be the Government's key social policy priority this year and I really hope that it is," he said.

While he declined to comment on specifics, Monsignor Cappo said the report, which took 18 months to produce, suggests a five-year implementation plan.

"It steps out what should happen each year, beginning this year," he said.

"I say this without any hint of exaggeration, this report is the biggest reform agenda in mental health in Australia in 30 years at least.

"It is a huge, transforming agenda and comes at a time when I believe the mental health system is desperately crying out for major reform."

Given tomorrow's observance of the World Day of the Sick, it's a timely reminder... and not just in Australia.