Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Making Hope

WE were wondering—Bishop Rodolfo Beltran of Bontoc-Lagawe and I—who would get the first 10 (or 30?) per cent in kick-back money from the one billion 600 million pesos earmarked for the new road project linking Bontoc, Tabuk and Tuguegarao. The scuttle-butt in town was that already, even before the first inch of cement had been laid, 600 million of that allotment had been distributed in our unsurpassed system of public works corruption.

If the thought of the easy loss of millions was appalling, just as appalling, I thought later, was the sure expectation on our part, the bishop’s and mine, that stealing of public money would occur on such a massive scale—and callously, with no nod whatsoever to public opinion and the basic demands of the common good. What the CBCP has been saying all along about the way we, ordinary citizens, accept corruption as SOP in our political and economic life as probably the greatest obstacle to our correcting of the evil came to mind as soon as we posed the cynical question about the division of spoils.

The thought made me recall another: “They (Filipinos) are poor because they are corrupt.” The judgment on our national character was made by a simple farmer in a rural parish in Manitoba, Canada after a talk I had given on our situation in the Philippines. This was five years ago in 2003. I had been invited by the CCODP (the Canadian Catholic Office for Development and Peace) to help in their Lenten program of social justice education for that year. I bristled when the remark was relayed to me. But later, in a calmer moment, I had to agree: the man had hit the nail on the head, but only if the first “they” was taken differently from the second: “They are poor”—the majority, that is, of us Filipinos; “they” are corrupt”—the few and their ilk that bishop Beltran and I were speculating about who routinely and shamelessly steal from public monies and thus make us all the poorer by their thieving.

Much later, however, remembering what the CBCP has been saying about our cavalier tolerance of corruption, I had to revise my exonerating of our people from all blame. We Filipinos do have a share in the sin of corruption, grand or petty, in our rather supine, unquestioning acceptance of it as a given we can’t do too much about. If this weren’t so, we wouldn’t have a hard time, for example, trying to explain to non-Filipinos why we keep electing to public office proven thieves and criminals who steal not only money when they are in office but other things besides, like votes, when they seek office in our system of election-cheating; and why despite the fulminations of bishops against corrupt politics, despite the constant—and nauseating—bombardment of our sensibilities by daily accounts in media of sleaze and thieving in government; despite the “revelations” of fact-finding bodies in Congress (which seems to be the main thing that that honorable body does)—things remain unchanged, the evil only gets worse.

The sense of despair of such citizens as are concerned about the deterioration of the country’s political morality is deepening. Solutions galore are proposed: impeachment of the President, coups d’etat by unknown “liberators”, a fourth and a fifth and a sixth EDSA People Power Revolution, marches, demos, etc., etc. Nothing effectively grabs the public imagination, and I suspect the reason is that deep down they know in their guts that none of the solutions being proposed so far will work. So what will?

Nobody seems to really know, pompous know-it-all solutions notwithstanding from all sorts of self-proclaimed pundits. I don’t intend by any means to join their august company in this column. But let me speak as an ordinary believer in Jesus Christ. And I can only think in terms of the power we have as Christians and which we don’t seem to know we have: the power of faith and prayer.

“More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of.” I can’t for the life of me remember who the author of those words was. They stuck in my mind as a callow seminarian 60 years ago. They have been with me ever since. And I have seen them verified again and again. Most especially at EDSA I, when people most naturally fell on their knees to beg for protection against the guns and minions of a rejected government. “People power”, we call it now. But it also was first and foremost prayer power—to the thousands at least who kept prayerful vigil those four heady days in February 1986.

This is what I would like to highlight in our Advent prelude to the celebration of Christmas this year: a whole nation on its knees in humble prayer before the Child of Peace asking for the peace of the nation—possible? A prayer then for the conversion of us all to be like him in his unselfish concern for others—which concern, if we only had it, would be the end of corruption in the nation. It is hence not a prayer for heaven’s vengeance on all the corrupt. I know sophisticates will laugh at this mode of reforming Philippine society from its besetting sin. Not, however, those of simple faith who have heard these words and believe them: “Ask and you will receive—knock and the door will be opened to you—if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you’d say to this mountain ‘move’ and it will move.”

So we pray with faith that the Lord will do as he said. And on our part, even as we pray that he touches hearts—especially those hardened by corruption—we do whatever is humanly possible to lessen the harm they do to our people. He can touch hearts in a way we humans can’t, so we humbly yet confidently have recourse to him in prayer.

“Look up and see, your redemption is at hand.” This is the message of Advent to all of us who believe. And believing, we can hope—we can make hope.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Academe versus Church

THE statement of the 14 professors of the Ateneo de Manila University on the pending bill on reproductive health of Congressman Lagman was variously captioned in the media as “defiance of the Church” or “opposition to the bishops”. The reason for their “defiance” or “opposition” is easily gleaned from this, that they are fully aware their acceptance of the bill’s pushing for contraceptives as “essential medicines” as part of the government’s program of population control goes counter to the Church’s ban on artificial contraceptives.

A more benign interpretation of their statement, however, is to look at their position not so much as an act of defiance as a call for further dialogue on the provisions of the bill.

Be that as it may, I can’t help asking what is meant by “the bishops”. For even if it is clear where the Church as an institution stands on the subject of contraception and so one can speak of “opposing” that stand, things are not at all that clear where the bishops are concerned. By this I don’t mean they don’t as a body subscribe to what Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae teaches about artificial contraception. What I am talking about is their actual position on the RH Bill itself and its specific provisions. As of now, they have not yet met to study the Bill’s contents directly to pass judgment on whether to accept or reject it in part or in toto. For as Father Eric Genilo pointed out in an article in the CBCP Monitor in its September 1 issue, the Bill is not totally negative as far as Catholics are concerned—and in a way this was what the Ateneo professors were saying in their statement. The same Father Genilo thought that the professors, in their appraisal of the Bill, had decided that its good points outweighed the bad—whereas Church people (the vocal ones at least) felt that the bad outweighed the good.
That difference in approach and thinking is precisely the reason for the need to look at the Bill more critically and for dialogue to take place among all members of the Church on it.

The point should be well taken. For in all the furor caused by the Bill so far, it is easy to overlook the fact that it is still in process and has not yet passed into law. In other words, now is the time for all to try looking dispassionately at its provisions to see what should be rejected or modified, what can be accepted as is or further nuanced. As one of the Ateneo professors has said, there are “negotiables” in the Bill as it stands, and this means changes can still be made even before it comes up for a final vote in Congress (where further debate will take place anyway to further strengthen or weaken the Bill as finally worded by Mr. Lagman and his co-sponsors).

Father John Carroll of the Institute on Church and Social Issues offers a suggestion to all concerned with the Bill, and that is for us to distinguish between dialogue, debate and advocacy. The point he makes is that at this time advocacy for or against the Bill seems to be paramount among people concerned in one way or another about it. Dialogue must take place first precisely to see what are our agreements, what our disagreements. We can then debate our disagreements and see if compromises can be made with a view to coming to a final consensus. The kind of debate we hold among ourselves as Church will, I do not doubt, be of great help to the final consideration of the Bill in Congress when it takes place. And we might add, our dialoging, debating, advocating must always be in the context of a rigorous discernment from faith, in faith, for the exercise to be genuinely, thoroughly Christian.

One point that I’m sure will come up in the debate would be this difficulty: If the Bill were to be unchanged from its present form, no modifications whatsoever being made from what will be suggested in the dialogue and debate we speak of here, what will happen to the Bill’s provision that asks for government to make available all forms of contraceptive means, artificial or natural, the former consisting mostly of “essential medicines”, no distinction being made between abortifacient and non-abortifacient medicines? The point is if no such distinction is made now, the Bill, if enacted unmodified, will from the outset be subject to questions about its constitutionality. So Father Joaquin Bernas has been pointing out, since it will in effect be, among other things, a law against the Constitutional ban on abortion. Why wait for that time-and-effort-wasting inevitability and not take steps right now to make the Bill totally in conformity with the Constitution with just a little more judicious give-and-take?

The pros and cons of the Bill aside, there is one little fact mentioned in the Ateneo professors’ statement that should make Church people pause. I am referring to the statistic they cite on the percentages of women who practice some form of birth control. They point out that the contraceptive rate for the whole Philippines is 50.6%, and only 0.2% of it covers natural family planning (NFP) methods. If the figures are true, this only means that we are failing utterly as a Church in our advocating and teaching of NFP in our Family and Life program. This failure is all the more embarrassing in that one of the strongest characteristics of the program has been its strong and long opposition to government efforts at population control. I believe its opposition would be more credible if its success at promoting NFP methods were a bit more something to be proud of.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Indigenous People Sunday

Gitamay-tamay kami.

I don’t think I ever heard, in all my years in Mindanao, any sadder or more painful words than these. “We are looked down on—we are despised, belittled—we are snubbed as inferiors.” The words were uttered by a Manobo tribesman at a conference, sponsored by the ECCC (Episcopal Commission on Cultural Communities) in the late 1970s, on the problems of the island’s indigenous peoples under Marcos’ martial law government. The speaker was referring to how they were being treated by others—the government and the non-tribal people of Mindanao in general, migrants from other parts of the Philippines.

The original peoples of Mindanao, he was saying, were second-class citizens in their own island home. Precisely because of that fact, the Commission changed its name, on the motion of IPs themselves, to ECTF—Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos. “Tribal Filipinos”—a name of shame (to non-IPs) deliberately turned into a name of pride: that was the reason for the new designation. (The later change to the Commission’s present name, ECIP, Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, was made only in the early ‘90s following the United Nations’ publishing of the Charter of Indigenous People’s Rights.)

Since then the one focus of the ECIP in its work among IPs has been the building up of their pride in themselves. It is bad enough when one is called “inferior” by external denomination. Worse when one accepts the name as one’s self-definition. IPs, those of Mindanao especially, have been especially vulnerable to this danger. Building up the human dignity of a downtrodden, neglected people—that the ECIP has believed all along is a prime work of evangelization.

Gitamay-tamay kami. Why the opprobrium cast on the IPs of the nation? Or, another way of putting the question, why the unrelenting prejudices of the rest of Lowland Filipinos against them? The answers are easily given: Those prejudices date back to Spanish times, prejudices that have not disappeared in the more than 100 years since the Philippines ceased being a colony of Spain in 1898.

Just a little bit of history then (from the particular optics of IPs): In the Spanish colonial era, the indigenous peoples of our islands, “Indios” all to the Spanish, were classified into these three broad but still quite precise categories: (1) “Filipinos” (I don’t have an idea when it started to be used generally for the colonized native population), (2) Moros and (3) “the wild tribes”. The criteria used for the classification were quite simple and straightforward. Filipinos were the various tribes that were subjugated by Spanish arms, hispanicized to a certain degree, and Christianized. The Moros were the Muslim groups in the southern islands who successfully resisted subjugation, hispanization and Christianization all through Spanish times. The wild tribes were the hill people that also resisted Spanish rule and colonization but were not Muslims—and they were disparagingly called salvajes for the reason that they refused to be “pacified” by Spanish arms and continued living outside the pale of Spanish culture and religion, clinging unredeemed to their ancient cultural and religious (“pagan”) traditions.

When the Americans took over, they did what the Spanish were never able to do with the Moros and the wild tribes: they brought them under their control (and that by the way is the basis of the Philippine government’s claim to sovereignty over the Maguindanao, the Maranao and the Tausug that the shelved MOA-AD sought to render ineffective). Under American rule, the non-Muslim, non-Christian groups were classified as tribal or “native” peoples and officially placed under the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. With independence, the term for IPs went through several permutations, each one as unsatisfactory as the last as a description of the reality it was supposed to cover. Thus, Native Tribes, Cultural Communities, National Minorities, Tribal Filipinos (at least in the Church), and now Indigenous Peoples—all quite problematic.

What all this brings out is that the IPs were looked down on because they were, unlike Lowland Filipinos, un-hispanicized and un-Christianized. But if they were that, it was because they were never fully conquered, never fully brought under Spanish domination. It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in in the Philippines: the conquered groups (and their descendants) are honored, hold pride of place; the unconquered (and their descendants) are dishonored and are relegated to (and kept at) the lowest rungs of Philippine society!

If there is anything then that can result from our celebration of IP Sunday, it should be to correct that anomaly: (1) restoring honor to IPs—they have all the right to be proud of their heritage and not to be despised for it; (2) accepting that we are all IPs, indigenous to our islands (and that’s why IPs as applied solely to our tribal peoples is most inaccurate); and (3) recognizing that, as the PCP II Final Document acknowledges, all Philippine peoples have a common, generic culture in which family is the prime value. What that document is in effect saying is that we are all tribal peoples and denying—or at least not accepting—that fact, it seems to me, is precisely one of our greatest problems as a people.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Participation in the Likes of the MOA-AD

The United Nations declared the 1960s “the Decade of Development”, development being understood mainly in economic terms. The 1970s were declared “the Second Decade of Development”, because, it was clear, the development sought in the 1960s had not happened as hoped for. In 1967 Pope Paul VI went beyond the two decades’ understanding of development in his landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio (the Development of Peoples). In it he laid out his ideas on total and integral human development—the development “of the whole man and of all men”. The encyclical and its definition of development as not only economic but holistic, touching all other areas of human living as well, has been the lodestar for the Philippine Church’s work in social development since then.

In those two decades, scientific journals (in sociology and anthropology especially) devoted much space to development studies and projects. Going over them, one was hard put to find instances of successful attempts. It did seem they were mostly about what not to do in development work!

Since development, purely economic or total and integral as Populorum Progressio would have it, is part of the broader subject of social change, the question those of us in social action work were forced to confront was simply this: how to bring about change in society, in a whole people, as widely as possible. All kinds of books and articles were being put out on the theoretical aspects of development in the sixties and seventies, but the study I found most useful was a book titled “Cooperation in Change” by Mr. Ward Hunt Goodenough, a cultural anthropologist. I liked it for its firm theoretical basis, but more so for its imminent practicability.

His idea was the soul of simplicity itself: Since in social change, it is people who are the targets of change, for change to occur on a broad basis and with some firm assurance that it will take, the very people who are to change (or to be changed!) have to be brought in into every phase of the change process: accepting the necessity itself of change, planning for it, setting goals, deciding on means and the use of available resources, evaluating each stage of the process, changing directions if previously selected ones were not producing the desired results, etc., etc. Simply put, the people to be developed have to be in on the process from the very beginning, own it, assume responsibility for every phase of it. Hardly a revolutionary idea—and a most common-sensical one—it is actually the principle behind what I discussed once in these columns, the AsIPA or Asian Integral Pastoral Approach which has been operative in many dioceses of the country today. Yet, for all its simplicity, it is a principle that is sinned against again and again by governments and technocrats or professed change agents.

Within our own experience in the Philippines, if we are to give one main reason for the utter failure of President Marcos’ “New Society”, it is precisely because it went against this basic principle: It was totally his idea and project, not the people’s; worse, it was going to be brought about by force—martial law was declared, he claimed, for the very purpose.

More recently: The same mistake is at the base of the widespread rejection of the MOA-AD, the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain, that the government proposed to enter into with the MILF as the final solution to the age-old Muslim Mindanao question. No consultation was held on it among the people most affected, the Muslim and non-Muslim peoples of Mindanao in particular, the whole nation in general (although one of the main authors of the memorandum claims something along these lines had been done on the Muslim side). Consultation—getting the people concerned to have their say on the subject of the Memorandum—this was the least one would look for in the participation in change that we are talking of here. It defies reason how (and why) the principals in the making and promoting of the Memorandum could overlook such a fundamental requirement for its success.

When one comes down to the ultimate reason why participation in matters like the New Society or the MOA-AD is of utmost importance, it is simply that bringing it to play in questions of the public good is a real recognition of the human dignity of each citizen, no matter how lowly or insignificant they may seem to those who hold power. The dishonoring of the human dignity of ordinary citizens—that to my mind is the greatest sin in the two cases I’ve been citing here. In their total disregard of us citizens, the message they put across too painfully to us is that we did not—and still do not—matter, even though the ostensible reason for thinking them up was our common good, our common peace.

The New Society and the MOA-AD may be dead, but the problems they tried to solve still are with us, their solutions as pressing as ever. The problems continue, and if there’s anything clear about them, it is that they cannot be solved in the way they have been approached so far. What is needed is the concerned and active participation of all of us in looking for solutions that work. We begin by confronting the issues honestly and forthrightly, and discerning deeply on them with the help of the Spirit of Wisdom. Real participation in decisions for the common good—its actualization is why we’ve been speaking all along in these columns of the urgent need of forming circles of discernment and, in the Church, basic ecclesial communities, people of genuine faith-discernment and –action.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Those BECs

The term BEC (basic ecclesial community) is not a household term for many Filipino Catholics. To those in the middle class—and especially in urban areas—the term doesn’t mean a thing. But to rural folk in many dioceses, the BEC is their way of being Church—and being Church in deeper ways than are known and practiced in more established parishes.

For it stands for people coming together to worship and, in their worshiping, to discern in community on their problems from motivations coming from their Gospel faith; and more, acting on those problems as community, in community. The potential of this mode of being Church for the reform of society is tremendous and may well be the only way open to us in the Philippines to get out of the slough of despond in which we have been sunk for years.

The story of the BECs is briefly told. The movement for their development started in Mindanao in the early 1970s. In 1971, the first MSPC (Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference) was held in Davao in a three-day gathering of delegates—bishops, priests, religious, laity—from all the dioceses of Mindanao-Sulu. The conference’s theme was the building up of Christian communities in the southern region of the Philippines, and to achieve that end, they zeroed in on three thematic Vatican II ideas, namely, dialogue, participation and co-responsibility, asking themselves how they could make these three ideas operative in the pastoral works and programs of their dioceses and parishes. Without realizing it, they had hit on a formula for the formation of what was known in other parts of the world, in Latin America especially, as basic Christian Communities (BCCs). That formula was later developed further in the AsIPA, the Asian Integral Pastoral Approach, that I spoke of in my last column.

Where comes the potential of the BECs for the reform of Philippine society? It is in the possibility of communal conversion to a greater sense and practice of the common good, the correction therefore of our greatest lack as a people and the wellspring of our massive and persistent culture of corruption. For simply from the BECs’ mode of common discernment and action on their life problems as a community, the members of the BECs develop a sense that their faith is not just for personal sanctification and conversion but for social as well. This sense is developed in their manner of community worship on Sundays. It is not the usual thing that is done in parishes where a priest leads the celebration of the Eucharist and preaches a homily on the day’s readings. And the parishioners sit passively and listen to his interpretation of scripture. People in the BECs do not have the Eucharist, but they have the Word of God in the scripture readings of the day. They apply the message of the readings themselves to their life, discerning individually and communally on what the Holy Spirit through scripture is saying to them in regard to their life and its problems in the here and now.

Thus, to give an example: today’s controversy about “reproductive health”—is this something that only legislators and bishops should argue about? If this is a problem of national significance for all of us, then the arguing on it must take place too among the rank-and-file of both state and Church, among and by the people whose lives are going to be affected by whatever government measures or laws result from the arguing that is going on today. The arguments of lawmakers for the need to control heavy population growth and their proposals for limiting it must be put squarely to the BECs for their discernment; so too the Church’s restrictions on some of those arguments and proposals, these are all grist for their discernment

Or the corruption in high places that our papers so nauseatingly report every day: Many of us despair of ever seeing an end to this shameful bane of our national life as one effort after another to face up to them and correct them ends in dismal failure. If this particular problem were brought down to the people in the BECs, rural folk for the most part whom the rest of the nation thinks are cogs in the political machines that power-holders treat as witless and easily manipulable, and they realize how in the end it is they who suffer most from the corrupt practices of “higher-ups”, what will happen? They may not be able to do much by way of stopping corruption, but one thing I am dead sure of: they will start us on the process of self-conversion simply from the realization that the biggest reason for its endurance is our high tolerance of it as SOP for politicians.

Such a wide and concerted reflection on national problems—is this beyond the thinking powers of our people? Church people who have had experience of BECs and their mode of worship and discerning are convinced there is no better way for entire communities to imbibe by their own efforts the values of the Gospel and hence to work our nation’s survival than through the discerning/praying process of self- and community-empowerment that is the Basic Ecclesial Community.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Circles of Discernment (the AsIPA)

LET us come together in little groups of reflection and discernment. In these groups we look seriously at our part in the many evils of our day—as individuals, as families, as communities—and discern what action we can do together.

On January 27 last, at the end of their first CBCP meeting for the year, the bishops issued that invitation to all of us in a pastoral statement they entitled with a quotation from the Evangelist Mark (1, 15): “Reform yourselves and believe in the Gospel!” In the earlier part of their statement, they reviewed briefly some of the besetting problems, current then, in our life as a nation: corruption in high places in the government (the ZTE scandal had just come to the public’s consciousness), extra-judicial killings, the bad peace and order situation, abuse of our natural resources, the growing incidence of political family dynasties, excessive politicking, etc. Summarizing these evils, they said: “In them all we see the all too patent subordination of the common good to the private good.” That subordination—they asked us to look deeply and honestly into by forming probing circles of discernment.

Except for a few gatherings here and there of students in universities in Manila and efforts by BEC groups and a sprinkling of lay organizations in some dioceses, the massive discerning that the bishops asked for did not happen—a disappointing response. As was the reaction of some Manila newspapers which preferred to contest the bishops’ listing of the evils of our country and failure to go along with their current obsession with the ZTE case and the “President-resign” movement. But even more disappointing, to me at least, was the parroting by some religious of the media discontent with the bishops’ statement. If the nitpicking was extraordinary, more extraordinary was the ignoring of the conclusion made by the bishops from their enumeration of evils about “the all too patent subordination of the common good to private good.”

Looking back now with the wisdom of hindsight, I wonder if the idea of circles of discernment—that was after all what the bishops were asking to be formed—was not fully understood in the context in which they put it: personal and especially communal conversion, our realizing of the part we play in the general malaise. In the statement, they referred back to what happened in 1986 in the developments that led to EDSA I reminding us of how we had come together “to pray together, reason together, decide together, act together.” In 1986, those words did bring about a common response among our people—they formed “circles of discernment”, however impermanent, asked in all seriousness how they should respond to the stolen election.

Some bishops thought that with our experience in the BECs, it would be easier to replicate, but to a wider extent, the reflection and prayer groups that formed then in 1986 after the issuance of their statement on the snap elections. For between 1986 and now, practically a generation, many dioceses have adopted the AsIPA (Asian Integral Pastoral Approach) methodology of community reflection and action in the formation of BECs. But possibly it has not been as widespread after all as was first thought, limited in most cases only to dioceses and parishes that had a strong BEC and social action program, hence the not too encouraging results. It might be a good idea then to say something here about what the AsIPA is all about, with a view to its further use as our methodology for change in the months and years ahead. For I think the bishops will keep returning to the need for communal discernment and action in the Gospel on national problems that so far have eluded efforts at correction. The method is briefly described thus:

The AsIPA presupposes a community (or group) that meets regularly for worship and keeps asking itself a basic question: “In the Scripture readings of today [usually those of Sunday] what is the Lord telling us to do as a community of believers?” The first step is to do some kind of social analysis of the life of the community—what are its current problems or opportunities, what is happening to hinder or help them live a more Christian life? Answering that question, they move on to the next step: a shared reflection on the message of the day’s scripture readings applied to their life as a community. From there they proceed to decisions on what to do with the fruits of their discernment. That done, they go on to make plans, assessing their capabilities and resources, assigning roles for particular tasks, etc. Action follows during the week. When they meet again, they assess what they have done, look into reasons for success or failure. Whether they have succeeded or not in their efforts at change, whatever situation they find themselves in as a community will call for another round of discernment and action. (That’s why the process is also called a pastoral spiral or cycle.)

The implications for self- and community-conversion of this method of communal discernment and action cannot be over-exaggerated. We’ve seen it work, as I showed in that incident I related last month on how the farming folk of Bukidnon dealt with those degrading referendums during martial law. I am convinced it is the only way we can form a strong communal sense of the common good. Without it we will most certainly continue to be mired as a people in the morass of our many intractable social ills solely because we cannot transcend selfish interests and strive as one for the common good.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The GK Problem and Prudent Moral Choices

As expected, my first Afterthoughts column last month was not received well by some principals in the controversy over CfC/GK. It elicited “afterthoughts” of their own—but most negative of mine. I would be mad to get involved any further in their quarrel. Still, I can’t help asking that they do not dismiss cavalierly as they are doing the logic of the questions (and the answers) of my Bontoc “philosopher”. All I’d wish them to do now, before consigning me to wherever I am to be consigned, is to answer categorically the same questions he put to me. Only then, I believe, can we have a rational discourse on the controversy without the innuendoes, misreading, fallacious reasoning that are being advanced so far by way of response to that maiden column.

Before sending it in to the CBCP Monitor, I had asked a professional moral theologian to look at it and see if he had some comments to make from the viewpoint of his expertise. Father Eric Marcelo Genilo, S.J. of the Loyola School of Theology obliged and sent me the following comments—they are well worth quoting at length here:

“There are enough references in scripture, the saints and the Church’s social teachings that would support the position that meeting the material needs of the poor is just as urgent and important as meeting spiritual needs.

“I would argue against those who criticize GK for taking donations from pharmaceutical companies that are involved in contraceptive production and marketing. First, these companies produce other products and it does not necessarily mean that the donations come directly from profits from contraceptives. Second, it is rash and unjust to label such companies as evil, as if they do not do any good for the community. In all human organizations the capacity for doing good and evil are present and operative. I can call the Church “devil” too if I just focus on the sex abuse committed by clerics, the atrocities of the Inquisition and the Crusades and the destruction of cultures by overzealous missionaries. But I don’t, because I recognize the Church is both sinful and graced. I would also apply the same compassionate consideration to multi-product pharmaceutical companies. Third, single-issue morality, like single-issue politics, ignores the complexity of life and the various factors that should be considered when making a prudent choice for what is good. To judge the worthiness of a charitable work on the basis of the contraceptive issue alone is like choosing a president based on his or her position on divorce, ignoring important issues like war, corruption, poverty, human rights abuses, and unemployment. Single-issue morality is morality for those with small minds and limited vision. Fourthly, one can point to examples of great men and women who did not shy away from working with sinners in order to do great good for others—Mother Teresa received donations from dictators to help the poor and dying; John Paul II visited Fidel Castro even if Cuba is embargoed by Western nations.”

Father Genilo’s ideas need no further commentary. But I would like to dwell a bit here on what he says about the danger of ignoring “the complexity of life and the various factors that should be considered when making a prudent choice for what is good.” His words carry me back to something that happened in Bukidnon during martial law times and that has been a source of lasting inspiration for me personally all these years. It is about our people’s capacity, when given the opportunity and freedom, for making precisely those much-to-be-desired prudent choices in their life as people of faith.

A number of times after the imposing of martial law, referendums were held to gauge how the people looked at the new political dispensation that was “the New Society.” The clergy of Bukidnon felt keenly the degrading effect of those phony acts of suffrage, especially in the coercing of people to vote according to “suggested answers”. They decided to come out openly on the occasion of one such referendum in the mid-‘70s with their collective judgment on it and on how they felt our people should act in its regard.

They analyzed and commented on three possible options open to us and our people: (1) boycotting the referendum in protest at its farcical nature even in the face of the decree forcing us to take part on pain of imprisonment for failure to vote; (2) participating in the process and voting yes or no freely according to conscience but making sure that our votes would be properly counted and reported as cast; and (3) resorting to blank ballots if we felt participation was too debasing or useless, but then we would also have to see to it that those ballots were correctly registered—not an easy thing to do under the menacing and ever present guns of the military.

The three options were openly discussed in all of our BECs to the consternation of government officials who had been bidden by Malacanang to produce a yes-vote. Because of the people’s vigilance, the counting of ballots at that particular referendum was done rather fairly. The final results were roughly one third yes-votes, another third no, and the last third “spoiled”—these were evidently the blank ballots. Only 200,000 of a total of more than 300,000 registered voters in the province participated in the voting. That meant some 100,000 had boycotted it. Add to this the no-votes and the “spoiled” ballots, and the message sent to Malcanang was unmistakable and clear as day. We like to think our people’s action helped put an end to those debasing travesties.

What amazed us most, however, were not so much the results of the voting (although they were surprising enough) as the way our people seriously discerned on how they were to conduct themselves in the referendum. A general pattern of action was followed by families: Mothers would participate, fathers would boycott. The rationale was simple: Should the non-participating fathers end up in jail, the voting mothers would be left to take care of the children. That approach had never occurred to the celibate clergy! But they were highly gratified when it happened, for it meant their efforts at helping create communities of faith-discernment and -action were having an effect after all.

Ordinary folk evinced then in a most remarkable way the capacity for prudent choice that Father Genilo speaks of. One would wish that that capacity were more in evidence too in the resolving of the CfC-GK problem than is being shown to date; and for that matter, for us, the general population, in regard to the burgeoning ills of the nation—a pressing and hard challenge to our capacity as citizens to make the needed prudent choices.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The CfC Controversy about the Devil

I was home in Bontoc recently, and as I was leaving the parish church after Mass the last day of my visit, one of the parishioners rather rudely accosted me with this question: “Is it at all allowed to steal from the devil?” “Daft!” I said to myself. I stole a look at my interrogator—it was “the village philosopher”. I thought he was trying to be funny, but he looked serious. Like the Sphinx, in fact. And inscrutable too. So I decided to play along and questioned him in turn: “Why do you ask that?”

He answered: “Because you priests—pardon my impertinence, your Excellency!—say it would not be a sin to steal under certain circumstances, for example, if I were starving and the only way I could survive were to steal the food I needed.” I replied: “You’re right. But why the devil?” “Because,” he came right back, “he is the one who has the ready means in the casus conscientiae [a conscience problem under discussion by moralists] that’s bothering me.” The man even knew Latin.

And he proceeded to complicate his original question with another (he hadn’t earned the sobriquet of “philosopher” for nothing): “But suppose the devil freely gives me what I want, so it wouldn’t be necessary to steal, can I in good conscience avail of his magnanimity?” His logic was impeccable (though I still have to meet such a devil of magnanimity), so I answered : “Yes!” This, grudgingly. And not a little testily: “But what are you getting at anyway with all those hypothetical questions?” “They’re not at all hypothetical,” he shot back. And he explained how he was a CfC member of the parish and the split between the group of Mr. Padilla and that of Mr. Meloto was so painful to him and his follow CfC-ers, they didn‘t know what to make of it. And neither did their pastor. (I learned later, though, that they had decided to stick with Mr. Meloto.)

He drew a parallel between starving people stealing—or freely receiving help—from the devil on the one hand, and on the other, the miserably housed in squatter areas in Manila (which, he said, had horrified him no end when he saw what passed for their “houses”), the putative beneficiaries of the donations of a pharmaceutical company manufacturing “sinful” contraceptives. I didn’t think the company in question would welcome being classified as the devil, but then it was being criminalized by Mr. Meloto’s critics, so I thought the man’s comparison was quite apt. He found great difficulty in the reason being advanced to condemn Mr. Meloto’s efforts at helping to provide necessary housing for the poor, supposedly, the use of evil means for a good end. That was how receiving money from the pharmaceutical company for Gawad Kalinga projects was being caricatured. And he went on to add in defense of Mr. Meloto that it wasn’t as if he, Meloto, were profiting personally from the company’s donations.

That exchange occupied my thoughts all the way back to Manila later in the day. The man was right. If people in desperate straits may steal, it doesn’t matter from whom they steal, saint or devil—although if I were asked, I would most probably counsel stealing from whichever of the two was richer! But if instead of stealing, the severely indigent begged and were given help freely—again, does it matter at all if the donor is a saint or the devil himself? If I were asked by the beggars directly, should I tell them to beg from the saint and not from the devil? But of this I’m sure: If the saint were in any way reluctant to help, I’d have no qualms whatsoever about telling them: “Go to the devil!”

All these strange thoughts because of the quarreling heads of the CfC. The split among them is most unfortunate. But whatever the reasons for it, a way must be found for the work of the CfC to go on. And by “the work of the CfC”, I mean what both factions say they are interested in: the spiritual formation of families, the housing of poor ones—these must by all means be done. But where dirt-poor families are concerned, I would put their housing needs before their spiritual ones. As the old Latin dictum has it (it must have been thought up by another village sage), “primum vivere, secundum philosophare—to stay alive comes first, to philosophize [or theologize too?] second.”

I guess more spiritual persons than I will vehemently say nay to that bit of folk wisdom, maintain that the spiritual must come first at all costs before the material. I’ll have no trouble agreeing with them—in the order of ultimate priorities. But in a situation of dire and immediate need for shelter and food? I’m afraid I’ll have to say the physical and the material will have to be attended to first. This is what many of us who work in the Church’s social action apostolate have found from painful experience. It is simply not the right thing to do to talk about spiritual matters to people whose empty bellies cry out to be filled. Or whose make-shift, open-to the-elements hovels degrade—and make hard the living of—their dignity as human beings and as children of the one Father of us all.

The parallel the man made between the desperate need for food and the equally desperate need for shelter came back to me with head-battering force. How spiritual can a family get living over a stinking estero or in one of those under-a-bridge “condos” that are the scandal of Manila? A decent house to bring up a family in—that’s an essential, I would think, for ordinary human living and, yes, for ordinary spiritual well-being as well.

Getting direct help from the devil—the thought was most intriguing. And another just as intriguing popped up to mind unbidden: Why should the devil go against his nature and agree to do a good deed? For a human, redeemable “devil”, I thought to myself, it could be out of a desire to make reparation for sins; or simply out of ordinary Filipino awa—something that I would think should come naturally to most of us. But for the real, unredeemed and unredeemable devil? No problem, I concluded: It would be out of sheer malice—to wreck havoc on some moral theologian’s inflexibly righteous certitudes! I should have asked my Igorot philosopher for his opinionated but, I do not doubt, common-sense verdict?

The real scandal, I further concluded, was not the money gotten from the “devil” of a pharmaceutical firm, but the necessity to welcome it because Christians—the saints—were not being sufficiently forthcoming with their charity. “I was a stranger and you took me in; I was without a roof and you helped me put one over my head—and my family’s. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

And with that bothersome if holy thought, I fell into a fitful, troubled nap.