There’s the Rub

Life and death

Socrates Villegas is the new head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. He marked the event by saying the Church would continue to pursue its role of critical collaboration with government.

He said the Church would continue to take government to task on social issues, such as land reform and freedom of information. “When we called attention to the failure in the equitable distribution of land to the farmers, they came so strongly on the defensive. The same thing happened when we raised questions about the Comelec instead of assuring us our anxieties would be attended to.”


Just as well, “It is ironic that a government that prides itself on treading the daang matuwid fears the freedom of information bill (FOI) because of possible discovery of wrongdoing by public officials. Why are they afraid to entrust the citizens with the truth of their government?”

Above all, he said, the Church would continue to take government to task over its promotion of the “culture of death.” “Catholic values are being compromised. Catholics are being given a hard time living up to their beliefs. It’s not that the Church enjoys wielding power, it’s for the moral fiber of Filipinos. (We want) to retain our Catholic identity in Asia.”


I sympathize entirely with Villegas and the CBCP when they raise grave concerns about land reform, the FOI and the Commission on Elections. I too would like to see a better redistribution not just of land but also of wealth generally, not least by a system of taxation that taxes the rich more than the poor. I too would like the FOI bill passed and without delay: There’s no more baluktot na daan than lack of transparency where it matters, where it hurts. And I too would like to see the Comelec reveal the source code to the voters well before elections. Lack of time is no excuse, preparing for elections is all the Comelec has to do, it’s got all of three years to do it each time.

You just wish the CBCP would do as it preaches. The bishops would be more believable advocating land reform if they would distribute their various estates to the poor instead of asking more donations from the landed, however corrupt and murderous, in exchange for a promise of a berth in heaven. They would be more believable calling for transparency to stop or expose corruption if they would admit the public’s gaze into their secret chambers. There’s corruption and corruption: Pedophilia is corruption too, priests having children (and abandoning them) is corruption too, bishops soliciting SUVs from presidents during birthdays is corruption too. And of course it would help greatly in complaining about electoral cheating if they would regularly do so—indeed if they had done so not too long ago when you had to be blind as a bat, or nagbubulag-bulagan, not to see it.

Maybe they’ve had a change of heart? Maybe. But as Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed during his Truth Commission hearings in South Africa, by all means let’s forgive, but first let the guilty confess his sins. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Certainly, it does not mean “Let’s move on.”

But it’s Villegas’ moral agenda that poses more grave concerns. There’s no problem being different, there’s no problem wanting to retain our Catholic identity in Asia. The problem is how different you want to be, the problem is what identity you want to retain. You stand your ground against popular belief, you’re principled. You stand your ground against the rest of the world, you’re just stubborn. You suffer because you stuck to your guns despite popular opinion, you’re a martyr. You suffer because you insisted that the world is flat, you’re a fool.

That is so in particular over contraception and divorce. Only Vatican City and the Philippines now proscribe them. Spain, the one country who gave us Catholicism, does not. Italy, the last bastion of Catholicism in the world, does not. Both have some of the highest contraception rates in the world. Both have some of the highest divorce rates in the world. Both have not seen family values plunge to record lows. Both have not seen the family as an institution trampled upon and reduced to dust. Both have the most Catholic identities in Europe. Both are known as the most Catholic countries in the world.

So when we say that we want to retain our Catholic identity in Asia, what kind of identity exactly do we mean? So when we say we don’t want to depredate the morals of Filipinos, what kind of morals exactly do we mean?

The irony is that we can’t even say we are at least being fiercely loyal to the Pope. Certainly, not the new Pope. Though Pope Francis hews to the traditional Church stance on contraception and divorce, he does not make it his priority, he does not posit it as the core of Christian faith before which everything must give way. His priority is talking to the poor, walking with the poor, serving the poor.


Which is to say that his deepest moral concern is also a deeply social one. In word and deed, at virtually every opportunity since he became Pope some months ago, he has dwelled on the point. Only recently he spoke about being pained at the sight of priests driving flashy cars, and he bid them to use more modest ones. A thing Filipino bishops would do well to heed. Villegas wants to save the souls of Filipinos, he should begin with their bodies, particularly those of them who can barely keep both together. Villegas wants this country to have an identity, religious or otherwise, it can be proud of, he should start living less like himself and more like Chito Tagle. That is so particularly for a country whose people exist in a fragile state, socially and morally, for whom life itself is a matter of life and death. The Pope—and Tagle’s—position is life.

His is just death.

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TAGS: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, CBCP, Commission on Elections, FOI, freedom of information bill, Socrates villegas
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