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.