At first, she could be mistaken as a Bible–toting Jehovah’s Witness who knocks on doors and preaches the Word of God. But Huelgas is a devout Catholic, and she’s on a different mission.
Usually accompanied by one or two other elderly lay leaders, Huelgas is out to convert; not to convince people to join the Catholic faith but to convert votes for senatorial candidates favored by Church officials.
“It is my duty as a Catholic lay leader to see to it that candidates who profess to be Catholics and live their faith are elected to public office,” Huelgas says.
The lay initiative in Lipa, Batangas has the blessing of the Church patriarch there, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, although he stresses that he only plays a secondary role. “This is purely a lay movement, and I am just here to support them.”
But Arguelles cannot totally disassociate himself from the lay movement. The prelate has been one of the more vocal bishops against the Reproductive Health law when it was still being debated in Congress. And he admits that the lay initiative was triggered by the passage of the RH measure.
Simply put, what lay leaders in Batangas are trying to create is the much talked about “Catholic vote,” which some Church leaders had threatened to muster at the height of the debate on the RH.
Until recently, this “Catholic vote” has been largely in the realm of fiction or a myth, never been actually tested or even proved.
In August last year, as the RH debates were in full swing, a number of House members withdrew their support for the RH measure with some of them citing pressures from the Catholic Church. It was a move imbued with political survival.
Sensing the passage of the controversial measure, bishops went on a higher gear in their campaign, engaging in one-on-one personal outreach to local representatives. They told lawmakers broadly that they would unleash a powerful Catholic backlash against those who would vote for the RH bill.
The intimidation worked on some.
Arguelles was among the bishops who delivered against the RH, with four district representatives in Batangas solidly behind the Church on the issue. (One Batangas lawmaker, Sonny Collantes, however abstained in the final voting).
How did Arguelles do it? The answer is in the strong political clout of the local Catholic Church in this predominantly Catholic province.
Out of the 2.38 million residents of Batangas, 2.13 million, or almost 90 percent, are Catholic, according to the 2010-2011 Catholic Directory of the Philippines. And it is not a nominal Catholicism that prevails in Batangas, but one actually professed and practiced by the faithful there, Arguelles said. What better place to put to the test and showcase the power the Catholic vote?
Team Patay, Team Buhay
Actually, the diocese of Bacolod has one up on the Lipa archdiocese in experimenting with the potential of the Catholic vote. The Bacolod diocese was the first to put up tarpaulins that identified senatorial candidates as either Team Patay (Team Death) or Team Buhay (Team Life) based on their position on the RH law. “We call on the faithful not to support any candidate who is anti-life and support those who are pro-life,” a statement from the Bacolod diocese says.
Shortly after the Bacolod diocese’s action, lay leaders in Batangas decided to copy it but with a certain twist. Instead of just a passive campaign, why not ensure that the voters actually get the message across?
Conrado Tejada, communications director of the Lipa archdiocese, says the different lay groups in the province agreed to put up tarpaulins that list the qualities of national candidates they should vote for or reject, foremost of which is their position on the RH law.
“It is a campaign for morality, since we also included other issues that the voters should also analyze before they cast their vote.” Tarpaulins are displayed inside and outside the church premises.
Lay leaders go from house to house and discuss with voters why it is important to vote for a candidate that espouses Catholic morality. Then they ask the voter to sign a document. The document binds the voter to the choices of the lay leaders.
This list of preferred senatorial candidates will be made known to the voters a few days before May 13, Election Day. The list will have the imprimatur of Arguelles before it is released to the faithful.
Arguelles says the end game is to create a Catholic vote based on a genuine discernment of the laity. This differentiates it from the Iglesia Ni Criso bloc voting, where instructions on whom to vote for comes from the sect’s leaders, with the members not knowing what standards have been applied in drawing up the shortlist.
Right now, Arguelles agrees that there is no Catholic vote—not just yet. “What we are trying to do is to make it,” he said.
Will the 2013 mid-term elections finally prove that the Catholic vote exists?
The examples of Bacolod and Lipa are spreading in other dioceses although in varying degrees. In Bulacan, Malolos Bishop Jose Oliveros told this journalist they are also campaigning for and against certain senatorial candidates discreetly. “We’ll also be coming up with our tarpaulins, but we will make sure these conform with the regulations of the Commission on Elections on campaign paraphernalia.”
In Cebu, Catholic lay leaders there launched the Live Initiative for Election 2013 (Live 2013) endorsing eight senatorial candidates who are supposedly anti-RH. Dr. Rene Bullicer of Live 2013 said Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma fully supports the lay initiative. “Our ultimate goal is to mobilize the Catholic vote,” he says.
Lay leaders in Batangas are pragmatic enough to acknowledge that they can’t ensure the victory of their Senate candidates of choice, or the defeat of their rejects. After all, this is the first time that some dioceses are mobilizing an active lay movement in the elections.
How would they gauge then whether they have successfully created a Catholic vote, albeit loosely?
Loreto Guinhawa, president of the Lipa Archdiocesan Council of the Laity, says that if some of the leading senatorial candidates who are “anti-Church” get pulled down in the final ranked results, “then that is already a win for us.”
The outcome of the senatorial race might just awaken a sleeping giant.
Aries Rufo is an investigative journalist and has covered the religion beat, politics, judiciary and the elections. His articles on these subjects have received citations and recognition, among them the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism.