Column: The bishops, between center and periphery

Published on February 5, 2008

The Catholic bishops’ latest pastoral statement held no surprises; indeed, it said things that needed to be said. And yet this loyal son of the Church, who eagerly awaited the statement’s release, must confess to a deep sense of disappointment.

I feel let down, not because of what the statement did not say (it did not, for example, call the Arroyo administration to account for any specific allegation — but that was to be expected); I was disappointed because of how it said the things it did say.

I winced, for example, when the bishops attempted a blithe contrast between the country’s problems as perceived in Manila and the problems as perceived everywhere else. They listed five issues — corruption now allegedly at its worst, the possible return of military rule, renewed attempts to change the Constitution, “extra-judicial” killings, the imminent implementation of a national ID system — and then pronounced them Manila-centric. “The above are more or less the problems of the nation as seen from the center that is Manila.”

They then made another list, including the “depreciation” in the value of OFW remittances, continuing problems in land reform, “unabated fighting — or the threat of it” in certain areas, frustrated election reform, the promotion of mining and the abuse of natural resources and, not least, the continued flourishing of political dynasties, and concluded: “What emerge from the periphery — the provinces — are concerns quite different from the above.”

I’m afraid the bishops have been less than intellectually honest. The problems they place in the box labeled Manila are in fact nationwide in scope. Let me cite just one instance; most of the politically motivated killings took place outside Metro Manila. In other words, the blood of hundreds of victims watered the countryside, not the capital. Indeed, as the Alston final report indicated, the large cities of Davao and Cebu have also been stained by the blood of victims, killed extra-judicially. These two cities, under Rodrigo Duterte and Tomas Osmeña, are the center of major archdioceses too, under the pastoral care of two of the country’s most influential prelates. The last time I looked, neither city was part of Manila.

The problems the bishops privilege as emerging exclusively from the provinces can be found in Metro Manila’s all-too-convenient box too. Let me cite just two instances. The deep longing for election reform is not unknown in the national capital. (Unsatisfied for so long, it almost approximates our spiritual thirst; it too is like a deer that yearns for running streams.) And the unfortunate effect of a strong peso on a remittance-fueled economy is felt as keenly in Metro Manila as it is in the provinces. Why, are there no OFW families in the capital?

Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps mental dishonesty is imprecise. Perhaps what our bishops were trying to do was indulge a quasi-Kantian rage for symmetry. First this, then that. There is the center, and there is the periphery. In doing so, however, in making a false distinction between the signs of the times in Metro Manila and in the rest of the country, the bishops of my own Church, I fear, have slighted truth itself.

I am also somewhat bothered by the difference in language used. The appeal for closure to long-running controversies (the content of many news stories) is couched diffidently, in the language of qualification. “Today we often hear that ‘closure’ has to be made to various issues ranging from the elections of 2004 to present charges of corruption in high places.” When we parse this passage, we see that the bishops are not directly saying closure is needed; they have merely acknowledged that the call for closure is often heard.

Contrast this with the stirring language of assertion in the latter passages, with, say, their (profound) analysis of the root cause of our many ills. “We zero in on what we say is the basic fault in our communities’ political and social life: the subordinating of the common good to private good. We see how this flaw in our national character evinces itself in our community life. We need to seek ways and means of correcting it in whatever way we can … We have to form ourselves into real communities of faith-discernment and -action.”

Perhaps qualification was needed to arrive at a consensus among shepherds. (Another example: “For we live today as a people almost without hope, it would seem.”) But it is the language of assertion that guides the sheep.

* * *

In direct answer to the bishops’ call for the formation of faith communities, major Catholic institutions involved in education and in election reform will launch “A Year of Social Engagement” on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, at 1 p.m., at the Manila Cathedral. (Not the periphery!) The idea, political science professor Benjie Tolosa writes, is “to foster social consciousness and engagement that would help build democratic institutions and hope in sociopolitical action.” It is a project I believe the late Jaime Cardinal Sin would have approved of.

* * *

The high school Class of 1983 of St. Scholastica’s College in Manila is hosting the school’s annual homecoming on Sunday, Feb. 10. Given that the class members run the range from presidential consultant Joanne Zapanta-Andrada to activist party-list lawmaker Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, and includes the likes of next-generation leaders like Margot Balderas-Torres, VP for marketing at McDonald’s, and Leni Iboleon-Dy, a top cardiologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, it is clear the nuns did their job well. The festivities start at 1 p.m.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Column: The bishops, between center and periphery

  1. Hi John. Is it Inquirer policy to exercise less skepticism towards the Church or to priests, compared to its standard skepticism towards government officials?

    I have the feeling that you’re pulling your punches in your criticism here, and that you do this because you consider yourself a “loyal son of the Church”. The pattern seems to hold true for the Inquirer in general: see the paper’s rather credulous front-page treatment of Fr. Suarez’ parlor tricks if you want to see what I mean.

    I could be wrong, of course. But I have the impression that the Inquirer has an unspoken policy to softpedal criticism of the Church and its works, which undermines the paper’s claim to fairness. What do you think?

    (Sorry to be slightly off-topic here.)

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