Asked if he had anything to say about candidates for public office who give away religious items to enhance their public image, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, current head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, admonished these politicians not to “abuse and misuse” sacred objects to gain political mileage. He said: “If we speak of the separation of Church and state, there should be a distinction between what is sacred and what is secular.”
The background to that question and the archbishop’s response is a Facebook post that has gone viral on social media. It shows Vice President Jejomar Binay’s picture with a woman he has just gifted with a rosary-like bracelet linked by a cross. The cross has the letter “B” prominently painted on the center, the same letter one finds embedded like an omnipresent trademark on every lamppost and waiting shed in the city of Makati. The reports say that Binay gave away these bracelets when he visited the families of the victims of the recent capsized ferry off Ormoc City. I learned these were the same bracelets he distributed during the papal visit in January.
Binay’s party spokesman, Mon Ilagan, clarifies that the items in question are not rosaries but plain bracelets. I have seen a photo of this Binay giveaway, and I have to say it does look very much like a decade of prayer beads resembling a rosary. It is the presence of the cross, Christianity’s most powerful symbol, in that string of beads that gives it its dominant religious meaning.
Binay has to explain what gives him the right to appropriate that sacred symbol for his family name’s initial, as though it were a mere lamppost. What is next? A “B” stitched on the Philippine flag, where the sun and its rays should be?
Archbishop Villegas’ admonition against such misappropriation is framed in terms of the separation between religion and politics. I am happy that the archbishop recognizes the desirable autonomy of the two spheres from one another. For, indeed, on many occasions, the shoe has been on the other foot—the clergy not hesitating to use political means to achieve Church ends.
My take is slightly different. I prefer to view this affair from the perspective of a concept of reverence, as this has been developed by Paul Woodruff, a professor of humanities and author of the book “Reverence: renewing a forgotten virtue” (2001). “Simply put,” Woodruff writes, “reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods. To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like a god—this is the opposite of reverence…. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself.”
But, in truth, this has less to do with religion than with politics, says Woodruff. “We can easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war or violence. But power without reverence—that is a catastrophe for all concerned…. Politics without reverence is blind to the general good and deaf to advice from people who are powerless.”
I am aware that Vice President Binay is a practicing Catholic. He likes going around the country attending Sunday Mass in various big churches on his way to his political sorties, and lines up for special blessings from the priest at the end of the Mass. In many ways, that behavior is replete with political meanings, even as it may offend our sense of propriety. But one cannot object to a politician’s display of religious fervor so long as it stays within the border zone of religious behavior.
What about putting your political sign on the cross? I thought nothing could exceed the shamelessness of a Central Luzon mayor who gave away coffins to the poor with his name emblazoned on the coffin. That behavior was excoriated in social media as the ultimate epal. But, Binay’s cross tops this mayor’s hubris by several notches.
We may perhaps never know what pompous sentiment possessed Binay and his overzealous followers to stamp the Binay dynasty’s brand on the Christian cross. Did he, for one foolish moment, think he is a god? Netizens were quick to address their discomfort to the bishops, but, in fact, the offense was not so much against the Church hierarchy as against the community.
Reverence, says Woodruff, belongs above all to the community. “Wherever people try to act together, they hedge themselves around with some form of ceremony or good manners, and the observance of this can be an act of reverence. Reverence lies behind civility and all of the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant.” There are objects that signify the oneness of that community. The Christian cross is one of them, the nation’s flag is another. Binay has mocked the cross and made it his own.
What is one supposed to do if one should ever receive such a gift from the Vice President? “The most reverent response to a tyrant is to mock him,” Woodruff says. But, a Christian might act differently. During Pope Francis’ recent visit to Bolivia, the left-leaning President Evo Morales presented him with a crucifix. Francis looked at the gift for a long time, perplexed and unsmiling: It was a crucifix shaped like a hammer and sickle. That awkward moment was caught by the camera and is accessible at http://wapo.st/1GcEx8q.
The affable Pope, says the report, politely received it and quickly passed it on to his aide. He did not seem offended. Facing the press later, the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, made one thing clear: “Certainly … it will not be put in a church.”
I would not wear Binay’s beads or use them as a rosary. I would put them aside and view them as a testament to a deluded politician’s monumental ego.
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