Text and photos by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — In a struggle often described in biblical terms, the Couples For Christ (CfC), one of the biggest Catholic lay organizations in the Philippines, with membership in 160 countries, announced that it has split into two, with the larger segment remaining as CfC.
“It is with a heavy heart that I relay to you the Joint Statement of Frank Padilla and the CfC International Council declaring the split,” Ricky Cuenca, CfC USA Country Coordinator, said in a letter to CfC members in the US.
This developed as Cuenca urged dissenters “to stop all these negative emails, accusations and personal attacks on certain leaders and all other conduct unworthy of Christian leaders.
Like Joshua, today we crossed the river Jordan under the continuing guidance of the Lord,” Cuenca told the members of CfC. “Just like most of you, I had agonized and struggled with the conflict within CfC.”
Until the release of the letter dated August 16, the internal dissension was kept under wraps and discussed in hushed tones by the CfC members, including those in the Chicago area.
Under Padilla’s leadership, the splinter group will be known as Restoration Movement. It is also referred to as the “Easter Group.”
Padilla, a son of the late senator Ambrosio Padilla, is a founding members of CfC, established in the Philippines in 1981. After 26 years of service, he resigned last February as member of the seven-man CfC International Council, the governing body of the entire organization. He reportedly quit in protest against the CfC concentrating much of its resources on Gawad Kalinga (GK).
Padilla also questioned the legitimacy of the newly elected council, before officially leaving CfC last August 1.
Cuenca quickly re-aligned the CfC-USA Council, replacing those loyal to Padilla, who was overseeing the entire North America region until his resignation. Joe Duran was named national director.
In Chicago, Cuenca named Norman Canete to represent the Midwest in the CfC-USA Council. Canete will now face the task of keeping most of the members from further dissension, as erstwhile head Manny Hermano sided with Padilla in the dispute.
Cuenca himself admitted that he agonized over his decision to stay with CfC. “Just like many of you, I had suffered in pain and agony, seeking hope for reconciliation,” he said. “My direct, actual and personal experiences with both sides before, during and after the elections in Manila have also led me to this decision.”
But even Cuenca and Duran’s leadership has now been questioned by the CfC-USA Council members they just replaced. That council, headed by Acting National Director Nani Almanza, insisted that they remain the legitimate governing body in the US.
“By Joe Duran and Ricky Cuenca’s action, they have effectively brought the Philippine problem to the US,” Almanza said. Six members of the Almanza-led council have refused to acknowledge the present CFC International Council, leading to their replacement.
“As in the Old Testament, the house of Israel was divided into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, so it is now with Couples For Christ,” Pineda said. “Who among us is with the House of Israel or the House of Judah doesn’t matter. Though the House of Israel was divided, both Kingdoms remained people of God – – brothers and sisters to one another.”
Cracks in the CfC leadership first surfaced when Padilla, along with two other CfC council members resigned in February. The resignation left four council members to administer the CfC until the June 22 election.
According to sources in the CfC-USA, before Padilla’s resignation, he and his allies questioned CfC’s emphasis on GK, which is accused of working with “anti-life corporations” as well as other religious groups like the Mormons. Padilla’s group reportedly viewed it as a distraction from the CFC goal of recruitment of more members.
One e-mail message circulating in different CfC online groups asked: “Are we building God’s Kingdom (GK) villages? [Or] are we building instead altars for foreign gods of some GK partners: wives of Solomon (Anti Life Corporations)?”
Because of GK (Gawad Kalinga housing for the poor project), the CfC “is veering away from the vision-mission and guiding Catholic principles of CfC.” GK is also accused of “overstressing social action at the expense of evangelization, catechesis and spirituality.”
In response, British national and GK volunteer Dylan Wilk wrote: “Compared to what some say about GK not bringing people to Christ, the areas where we see great numbers of people being evangelized to CfC are actually in the GK communities themselves.”
“If you visit any GK site, you will most likely see row after row of houses, most of which have CfC stickers on the doors. So far I have not seen that in any subdivision,” said Wilk, a millionaire businessman who donated his millions to GK. He is based in the Philippines and is married to the daughter of former GK head, Tony Meloto. Meloto himself resigned as GK head in an apparent move to diffuse tension within CfC. He remains a GK volunteer.
“Our CfC members and leaders have been living in their subdivisions for many years but have not succeeded in the massive evangelization of their neighbors that GK has done in the sites,” Wilk pointed out.
As one of the “seven pillars,” GK is under the supervision of CfC. GK promotes “discipleship of Christ” by helping the poor and providing them livelihood and decent shelter. The program has earned international recognition, as well as accolades for Meloto, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s 2007 Person of the Year. However, GK also earned scorn as it was accused of overshadowing the work of CfC.
Meloto remained silent throughout the whole saga, even as his son-in-law Wilk continues to emphasize that it is through GK that “people see the Gospel being lived out (so) that they join CfC.”
“It is not the house, if you listen to the testimony of almost any beneficiary, they will tell you that what changed them was the great love shown by their CfC caretaker team on a daily basis,” Wilk wrote. “If every CfC member did this, we would already have seen GK777 fulfilled and 100,000s of new members in CFC. That would be ‘the power of we’ – God working through us as a Christian community.”
At issue was Padilla’s group wish for the remaining four members of the council not to seek re-election. It insisted the four were “part of the conflict,” and have “lost their moral ascendancy to govern…being unable to resolve things in the Lord.”
Padilla’s group stood firm that the newly elected council, which counts the original four as members, “does not have the mandate to govern.” It added that because of the council’s “disrespect to the bishops,” the CfC risks official Church recognition, including from the Vatican.
“The Council does not have the blessings of the Church, and so does not have the blessings of God,” the statement “in behalf of Frank Padilla,” said.
“In fact, the Council is the prime cause of our present difficulty with the Church hierarchy. The Council has endangered our relationship with our shepherds, and has threatened our very mission for Christ.”
This dispute eventually led to the breakup, when Padilla’s Restoration Movement formally announced separation from CfC in his July 30 and August 1 letters.
In an apparent last-ditch maneuver, however, Padilla reportedly tried to register his new group under the name CfC-Family Ministry with the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission. That application was denied by the SEC, however.
Meanwhile Cuenca, as head of the U.S. delegation, said the development “gives a clear mandate for Couples for Christ USA to move on.” He added, “Although saddened by the Joint Statement of the split and its impact on the community, it may on the other hand be the best solution for greater transformation of the two groups, as a house divided will also have difficulty moving forward.”
Cuenca also defended the seven-man international council as “capable leaders, honed in the CfC culture and values. True to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, they are united, of one heart and of one mind.” He urged the members to “remain and stay within Couples for Christ.”
“Amidst the apparent confusion, do not worry. For while there is a universe of truths, with each side taking its own slice or portion of the truth, God knows the whole truth,” he said.
In Lipa City, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles issued a memorandum to all priests under his diocese. “The Archdiocese of Lipa recognizes only the one and original CfC; no other CfC groups, with other qualifications, may do apostolate in the Archdiocese,” Arguelles said. “All GK projects within the Archdiocese will remain one of the seven pillars of the CfC,” he added.