Column: Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

Published on November 13, 2007

“I am furious at hypocrites, those who pretend to be someone they are not,” Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile said the other day. The confessed fake ambush victim (1972) and election fraud perpetrator (1986) was taking aim at Speaker Jose de Venecia (2005), but who knows? Perhaps, despite a public airing of sins during Edsa II, he was yet again in self-critical mode.

Incidentally, those who think that Enrile’s latest broadside at De Venecia (when it comes to the NorthRail project, he certainly seems to have plenty of ammunition) is a ratcheting of their word war should realize that, technically, a ratchet moves in only one direction. In other words, the movement is irreversible. In the buyer’s market that is Philippine elite politics, however, the hidden hand is never too far from the reverse gear.

* * *

The American Studies Association of the Philippines is marking the centenary of the inauguration of the first Philippine Assembly (in 1907, local politicos like Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Quezon began their transition from periphery to center) with a national conference devoted to exploring American influence on Philippine democracy.

My own participation in this Saturday’s assembly of scholars at the National Computer Center in UP Diliman involves yet another source of influence of American origin (but immediately, intricately, international in character): the Internet. The question, to borrow Woodrow Wilson’s World War I slogan, is: Has new media made the world safe for democracy?

But this is a mere footnote to the conference. I look forward to wrestling with the main text, courtesy of colleagues Raul Pangalangan and Manolo Quezon, and especially Mary Ann Marchadesch, Helen Yu-Rivera, Olivia Caoili and Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio.

* * *

American conservative Fr. Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, was in town last week, as a guest of the decidedly liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation of Germany. In part out of deep curiosity about this unusual partnership (the visit seemed like something, say, the Hanns Seidel Foundation would fund), I wangled an invitation to the screening of “The Call of the Entrepreneur,” an Acton Media documentary based on Sirico’s book, “Entrepreneurship as a Vocation.”

I needn’t have wondered. What the two have in common is an abiding faith in the primacy of freedom.

The movie, to be completely candid, wasn’t an entirely satisfactory defense of the entrepreneurial vocation, at least in my view. In fact, I found it too defensive. While polished and professional, as a questioner at the open forum that followed noted with precision, the documentary was flawed movie-making; I found the second of three acts weak and unnecessarily discursive.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the hour-long documentary is essential viewing, for Filipino Catholic faithful who care about the consequences of their political commitment, and especially for Filipino Catholic clergy who believe that, as ex-senator Vicente Paterno recalled a bishop’s words of cloistered wisdom before the forum, “businessmen are evil.”

But the movie’s failure to recognize that the seeds of alienation and exploitation are to be found in the same fecund soil of capitalism undermines the movie’s message. In celebrating the entrepreneur’s vocation, “The Call of the Entrepreneur” scants the fertile deposit of Catholic social teaching; in defending an admirable calling, it opened itself to the possibility of new accusations. For some reason, I was reminded of an Irving Berlin ditty made popular during Woodrow Wilson’s war: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

* * *

What do I mean, exactly? During the open forum, Sirico quoted (inevitably) from “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II’s historic encyclical of 1991. (His biographer, George Weigel, asserts that in its comparison of economic and political systems, the Pope described “the moral architecture of a free society”–a bold but entirely accurate assertion.) “Centisimus Annus,” Sirico said, had recognized that entrepreneurship “throws practical light on a truth about the person.” That it did, and more. In effect, the encyclical recognized that the creation of wealth was a good thing.

But in the movie, the common image of the businessman as greedy, as one in business merely for the money, is denied, correctly, through the stirring example of wealth creators like Jimmy Lai and, incorrectly, through the specious argument that greed is not the monopoly of businessmen. True, but as the “Centisimus Annus” itself reminds us (in the very next section to the passage Sirico quoted): “In spite of the great changes which have taken place in the more advanced societies, the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing.”

It would have strengthened the movie if these inadequacies of capitalism–surmountable, as experience happily tells us–had been given their due.

* * *

‘PROVINCIAL’ NEWS. I understand that the Philippine province of the Society of Jesus will be represented at the order’s 35th General Congregation in Rome in January by Danny Huang, the provincial, and Ben Nebres and Jojo Magadia as electors. Topping the agenda of the extraordinary convocation is the election of a new Superior General. Meanwhile, the Philippine province of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (which includes Vietnam, if I am not mistaken) has elected a new provincial. Come March, Chito Reyes will succeed Jun-Jun Agruda, in my view the country’s best homilist.

CORRECTION: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” was written by Frank Loesser, during World War II.

CORRECTION 2: For some reason, I consistently misspelled the Acton Institute’s co-founder’s name as SirOco in print, when of course it should have been SirIco. My apologies. This version incorporates the correct spelling.

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