The Couples for Christ, the foremost Catholic lay organization, is 26 years old this year. It has grown into a worldwide network of about one million members. Its thrust has been mainly on evangelization, beginning with the couples themselves and gradually branching into several family and social ministries, offering a unique "womb to tomb" type of evangelization that has reached all the corners of this country and in 160 countries in the world.
It has done remarkably well in its efforts to make a difference, particularly for the poor and indeed, it has achieved accolades from all sectors of society. The plaudits though may have lulled CFC into a false sense of achievement. And pride is just a step away from this.
Now, CFC is on the throes of its most severe crisis; a crisis within its ranks, a crisis amongst its leaders. During the last few years, there had been telltale signs of a looming crisis. Unfortunately, these signs were largely ignored.
What Went Wrong? (1)
The decline in membership was one sign. From a high of about 1.2 million members, CFC’s membership dropped to a low of 900,000 in a period of just five years. New members were hard to recruit; participants in Christian Life Programs (CLPs) were disappointingly low. Ominously, members were simply dropping out. The reasons were varied: different priorities, conflict with members/leaders, wrong charism, lost zeal. Some preferred to stay in the background, as if waiting for the penny to drop.
The significant drop in membership resulted in a decrease in tithes, a perennial problem going from bad to worse. The unexplained CFC debts, which, for a time, ballooned to millions of pesos, further worsened the situation. Overall, there was lack of transparency in how money was being handled. There were instances when money was being spent in advance, that the council was spending beyond its means. This cavalier attitude on finances was reflected in the absence of year-end financial reports and an aversion to so-called "corporate" auditing procedures. Members were asking amongst themselves, "How is our money being spent?" The council’s reply, equally cavalier, was, "trust us."
Another sign centered on the interminable tenures of the members of the Executive Council, the governing body of CFC. Key figures like Frank Padilla, Tony Meloto, Lachie Agana, and Roquel Ponte, had had uninterrupted memberships in the council for about a quarter of a century; an endless merry-go-round of multiple positions and of course, attractive perks. It was not uncommon, for example, for Frank Padilla to report to Frank Padilla who would also report to Frank Padilla. Padilla, in an audacious retort to probing e-mails last year, rationalized this anomaly by claiming no one outside of the council was competent enough to do multiple jobs. These astute men were able to wield a kind of collusive leadership because they themselves were the ones who determined who would constitute the Elders Assembly, ostensibly the body with the final say on CFC policies. It was observed that the members of the Executive Council, to preserve their territoriality, nominated only those members who they saw fit as friendly and obedient to their cause. Members who asked too many questions, especially the awkward questions, were excluded. The "awkward" members who somehow managed to get in the council did not last long and were speedily replaced. "Obedience" was the unofficial mantra for that select group.
What Went Wrong? (2)
The Executive Council was dominated by two individuals, Frank Padilla and Tony Meloto: brilliant, headstrong, and ambitious. One can say that they epitomized CFC. Padilla is a great communicator: excellent in speech and prose. But he often exudes a stiff countenance, lacks a sense of humor, and comes off as an obsessive, controlling icon.
Meloto is a first class strategist, an exceptional man who can readily walk his talk. He has more charisma than Padilla. He has an incredible memory, which can be quite disarming. He has the knack of making the other person feel important. Like Padilla, Meloto is passionately controlling.
In the hierarchy of things, Padilla is the mentor, Meloto is the protégé. That is, until Gawad Kalinga. The success of Gawad Kalinga, rightly or wrongly attributed to Meloto, upset the hierarchical apple cart. GK generated so much positive publicity that it created a bandwagon effect. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanted to be part of the groundbreaking phenomenon called GK. Meloto began to reap laurels from all quarters. Meloto basked in the limelight. Meloto felt heady with success. Can pride be far behind?
A significant event that catalyzed the crisis was the Ramon Magsaysay Award given to Meloto, as an individual achievement. Significantly, the announcement of the award was met with less than cacophonous jubilation by the CFC. Many were wondering, "why Meloto, why not CFC?" There were unconfirmed but widely believed reports that there were attempts by some backroom boys (actually girls) to prevent Meloto from garnering the individual award. To make a long story short, Meloto and CFC, represented by Padilla, received individual and group awards, unprecedented in the history of Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It was plain the backroom boys (girls) were able to strike a compromise.
But the arrow had been released, and CFC bled. Many felt that Meloto should have declined the honor as an individual achievement because it was not he but CFC that created, nurtured, and sustained GK. The fact that Meloto accepted the award meant he thought otherwise.
As Executive Director, Meloto controlled GK. Controlled, with a capital C. Meloto became the face of GK, a fact not all discouraged by the council. It turned out to be a big time blunder. The GK bandwagon rolled on but somewhere along the way, CFC’s evangelical wheel suffered a puncture. It was now becoming evident that GK, spearheaded by Meloto, was getting too big at the expense of CFC. CFC programs were taking a backseat in favor of GK activities. CFC talks were being canceled or postponed because of GK. On a personal note, the protégé has now overshadowed his mentor. Not a good recipe for equanimity. When two brilliant, headstrong, and ambitious egos clash, a crisis inevitably erupts. Publicly, Meloto would say Padilla remains as his mentor. But Meloto was less than vociferous, let alone enthusiastic, in proclaiming CFC during his numerous public orations. Meloto’s star shone so brightly that some political commentators started to consider him as presidential timbre.
As GK Chair, Padilla was out of the media limelight. For the first time, people were talking more about the protégé than the mentor. Padilla was quite supportive of GK from its inception up to as late as November 2006. Padilla has high regards for Meloto and the feeling is mutual. Both had developed a very close bond after being together so long in the council. That is why his trenchant defense of GK in his paper CFC-GK2 was no surprise.
But his paper CFC-GK3, released six months later, was a shocking surprise. In it, he spun 180 degrees from his former position on GK. In GK2, he was all for it; in GK3, he was against it, raising the specter of a split between the original holistic, global, Catholic CFC from the CFC-GK, which has turned, in Padilla’s opinion, into a mere social phenomenon. Padilla, in a brilliant anticipatory move, got the bishops involved. He knew that when push comes to shove, the bishops would be on his side. He was right, as subsequent events showed. The gambit worked like a charm.
Are You Pride? Come In
What drove Padilla, in just six months, to change his ideological suit from GK2 to GK3? In that six-month period, Padilla, Meloto, and Agana resigned from the Executive Council for reasons largely unexplained. It is not certain if their resignations were for good or for the meantime, with the elections coming in about four months. Speculations abound, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But their resignations had one stunning effect: they were out of the Executive Council, their power base for so long. Suddenly, they found themselves out looking in. A thoroughly unfamiliar position for the trio.
Padilla, whose creativity and energy require power and position, felt like fish out of water. The report, most likely true, that he was surprised and piqued that he was not re-nominated, speaks of his penchant to remain in control. Meloto, surprisingly (perhaps not really, for his protégé, an obtrusive young chap, whose loyalty to him is second to none, took over as Executive Director of GK) coped better than Padilla in the aftermath of their resignations.
Psychologically, any man who publicly declares he has no need for power and position actually hungers for them. Padilla and Meloto are such men. Meloto does it more subtly, though. For Padilla, there has to be a stage to showcase his admittedly prodigious talents; one smart way to get back on track was to get back people’s attention. He got their attention indeed with his CFC-GK3 paper.
Read on its own, the CFC-GK3 paper is a bombshell. In measured tones and exquisite prose, he seemingly hit the bull’s eye. But read in tandem with his CFC-GK2 paper (something highly recommended) written barely six months earlier, one realizes that all his GK3 arguments are hollow and shallow, and a bellow from someone who is barely mellow.
For he could as well have rebutted the GK3 issues he raised by quoting his own defense in GK2. Call it semantic somersault. Call it erudite contradictions. Call it strange ruminations but this kind of thinking needs further observation. It is worrisome. He was the GK chair all those years the problems were incubating. His hands, one may argue, are also tainted.
Nevertheless, his moves rattled everyone. The Executive Council members, headed by the disenchantingly ineffective Joe Tale, did not know what hit them. Tale, who is really a nice chap, was not impressive in communicating the council’s defense and Padilla simply found him and the rest vulnerable. Meloto’s sepulchral silence did not help the council’s cause. And people wondered why. "Our house was on fire and he did not do anything," noted an insightful member.
The Choices We Have to Make
Now, CFC is virtually rendered split into two factions: the original CFC (with GK) and the CFC (with Foundation for Family and Life or FFL). It might as well read "Meloto versus Padilla." Curiously, both deny a continuing desire for power or position. But both suffer from cognitive dissonance: what they say do not tally with what they do.
Consider these: Meloto’s influence in CFC-GK remains potent. The CFC Executive Council and the majority of the Board of Elders are loyal to him. His hold on GK is secure: lock, stock, and barrel. He remains the power behind GK. Padilla, who implored members to trust him, is now the President of the CFC-FFL and will surely be the leader of his group. He may act coy about it but a clamor for his leadership is too tempting to ignore.
Talk about not wanting power and position. That is cognitive dissonance.
The Crux Of The Crisis
The crisis is actually a crisis of two egos gone wrong. A case of an immovable object versus an irresistible force. Shall CFC suffer because of the conflicts of these ambitious men? A million members to be split between these two? Should it be allowed?
What needs to be done? Simple. Take away both the immovable object and irresistible force. How?
The Five Steps To CFC Crisis Resolution:
- The current CFC Executive Council and the Board of Elders should step down. Just stand down. No two ways about it. A great sacrifice. But no individual or group should be greater than the CFC community. To raise legalese arguments will not wash. Their mandate has been declared null and void by at least one half of the community. And we are not talking about numbers here. Refusal would only mean they are in there for themselves.
- The restoration CFC-FFL should still its trumpets and go back to CFC. Perish the thought. No more separatist adventurism. It is difficult to believe that God really wants CFC to disintegrate, which is likely if separation occurs. Refusal would likewise mean they are in there for themselves.
- A new election of Executive Council members and of the Board of Elders. Past and current members of the council and the board should not run for any post, at any time; if nominated, they should decline. Terms to be fixed. No multiple positions. The slate has to be wiped clean. Very clean.
- The work in GK should continue but with revisions in its priorities. Evangelization of families should be the main focus. CLPs and all CFC programs must be offered to all housing beneficiaries. GK should have no human face. Its face, should there be one, is Christ’s. GK’s CFC provenance must be openly declared. And for CFC to welcome those who want to help but to be wary of “Greeks bearing gifts.”
- In a general gathering of members, together with the cardinal and bishops, public apologies must be expressed by Padilla and Meloto, on behalf of their groups, followed by firm handshakes and warm embraces. Their wives should do the same. The cardinal and bishops will pray over our community.
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." (Rev. 21.4)