HIS VICTORY has been described as a miracle. With just over a thousand votes against the next leading candidate, Fr. Eddie Panlilio became the first priest to be elected as governor of Pampanga. Locals hailed the victory as the fulfillment of the Kapampangan adage, Ing pari yang hari—“The priest is king.”

But is it right for clerics to run for political office?

No, said Fr. Jose Ma. Tinoko, O.P., a leading Canon Law expert.

“The purpose of politics cannot be reconciled with the obligations of the clerical state, because politics may hinder the diligent fulfillment of the office entrusted to priests,” Tinoko told the Varsitarian.

He added that priests who want to run for public office must give up their vocation.

Even before he ran for office, Among Ed, as he is known in Pampanga, was involved in social development.

The priest, born in Minalin, Pampanga, was director of the Social Action Center of Pampanga, the social arm of the Archdiocese of San Fernando, from 1984 to 1998. During his directorship, Panlilio initiated a micro-financing program, which continues to help Kapampangans find alternative livelihood.

Because of his accomplishments, Panlilio received the Most Outstanding Kapampangan Award for Community Service in 1999, and the Archbishop’s Award for Social Service in 2006.

Aside from leading the Church’s social programs, Panlilio was also director of the Theology Department of the San Fernando-based Mother of Good Counsel Diocesan Seminary in 1989.

Panlilio’s belief in conscientious leadership and people empowerment for sustainable development, coupled with his good listening and decision-making qualities, has then inspired Kapampangans to support his candidacy.

Alternative moral candidate

In a published manifesto at Panlilio’s website, www.amonged.org, Kapampangans expressed their support for the 53-year-old clergyman, citing his social service background which can be useful to help arrest the issues confronting Pampanga nowadays, such as jueteng and the dubious collection of quarrying funds.

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“In the light of the abovementioned premises, we are offering the candidacy of Fr. Eddie T. Panlilio to the highest office in the province. We humbly believe he is the true Kapampangan we need at these times,” said the manifesto, published in both English and Kapampangan.

Consequently, the EDsa Pampanga movement, which sought to bring the moral spirit of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution in Pampanga and hence campaign for Panlilio’s gubernatorial bid, was born, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

For the governorship, Panlilio faced two of the most formidable names in Pampanga politics: Provincial board Member Lilia Pineda, wife of suspected jueteng lord Bong Pineda, and re-electionist governor Mark Lapid, who allegedly extorted money from quarrying operations in the province.

Despite the lack of well-oiled campaign machinery, Panlilio managed to eclipse Pineda by 1,147 votes. Pundits said the victory underscored the Kapampangan electorate’s desire for political change.

In return, Panlilio vowed that he will exercise transparent and effective governance. He said he would bank on his experience as a priest to foster civic participation and social action in alleviating the condition of poor Kapampangans.

Prior to running for governor, Pampanga Archbishop Paciano Aniceto relieved Panlilio of his priestly duties, so that his vocation may not interfere with his newly-sought government post once he gets elected.

“Forbidden”

But as far as Father Tinoko is concerned, priests are prohibited from running in public office.

Tinoko quoted the New Code of Canon Law, which says that “clerics are forbidden to assume public offices whenever this means sharing exercise of civil power.”

Tinoko explained that priests are barred from politics because of conflict of interest that may jeopardize their clerical duties.

“The priest who wants to run for office has to inform his proper superior, usually the bishop. Now, the bishop will remind him of the law that clerics are forbidden to run for public office,” Tinoko said. “But if the priest insists, then the bishop will render the necessary sanction, which is suspension of a priest’s right to exercise his sacred power.”

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Suspension of sacred power takes away the cleric’s authority to dispense the sacraments, preach, and to receive financial support from the Church.

Despite canonical prohibitions against the clergy running for public office, Catholic priests in some parts of the world have done so.

“In South America, there are many priests who became cabinet members of some governments, especially of leftist governments, because they believe that they are fulfilling their advocacy for the poor and the marginalized,” Tinoko said. “They (the political priests) are sympathetic to the communists.”

Some priests were appointed cabinet members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, Tinoko said.

Fr. Miguel D’Escoto and Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, were named ministers of foreign affairs and culture, respectively, in 1979, after the Sandinistas’ triumph in the Nicaraguan Revolution in that year.

Both secretly joined the Sandinistas as advocates of liberation theology, a doctrine which was partly criticized by the Church for its Marxist underpinnings. In 1983, when Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua, he admonished the two priests.

Aside from Panlilio, two other priests ran for office in the last election.

Father Ronilo Omanio of Occidental Mindoro ran to unseat long-time politician and incumbent Gov. Josephine Ramirez-Sato. Meanwhile, in Zamboanga City, Monsignor Crisanto dela Cruz, an alumnus of the UST Central Seminary, ran against long-time Mayor Celso Lobregat. The two priests lost.

“Dela Cruz really left the priesthood. When he asked the bishop if he could run, he knew what was coming, and he really asked to be dispensed,” Tinoko said. “We have other alumni who ran for small government positions and were suspended. Upon losing the election, they did not return anymore to the priesthood.”

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Returning to the fold

In Panlilio’s case, he was suspended from his priestly obligations last March 25 to pave the way for his candidacy. Panlilio is hopeful that he could return to the priesthood after 2010 when he ends his term as Pampanga governor, according to a www.gmanews.tv interview.

But can Panlilio return to the priesthood?

“Theoretically yes, but practically, no,” Tinoko said.

“It depends upon the bishop as to when the suspension will be lifted,” Tinoko said, adding that bishops may find accepting back prodigal priests unfair to the other members of the clergy, since they have disobeyed the law.

If this is the case, then the priest who wants to re-enter the vocation must look for another bishop who may be willing to take him back.

“If the priest finds a benevolent bishop, that bishop will ask the Holy See to issue you a new indult (special permission) to restore the priestly powers removed from you when you were suspended. So unless you find that benevolent bishop, you cannot be back to your clerical state,” Tinoko said.

Despite the stringency of the law, Tinoko said that the prohibition against priests running for government positions is not absolute.

“In the extreme case that the good of the Church is prejudiced and there is no one who can serve, then a priest can be allowed to run,” he said. “Maybe Panlilio thought that the best solution to remedy Pampanga’s political and moral woes is for him to run as governor. After all, the people supported him.”

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