Philippine Daily Inquirer, Op-ed commentary, January 11, 2013, p. A12

Underdevelopment can be attributed in no small measure to dysfunctional institutions. This can be said of our two major institutions, Church and State, constitutionally separate but with intersecting objectives and policies. Deep reforms must take place if the country is to move   faster to be in step with the globalized community of nations.

While the State goaded by civil society has introduced significant policy reforms beginning in 1986 through the late 1990s and in the past two-and-a-half years, disrupted though by a protracted spotty interregnum, the Catholic Church continues to stick to its social tradition. The rise of Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, widely respected as a voice of moderation, to cardinalship last November 2012 not only made the nation proud. It also raised hopes among Catholics that as leader of the Catholic hierarchy, Cardinal Tagle would begin to modernize the Church in tandem with other Catholic countries.

Catholic theologian Aloysius Cartagenas puts it succinctly: “Modernity, notwithstanding its excesses and limitations, has evolved to become ‘the matrix in which all forms of social life exist’, not excluding the life of religions and their respective public  institutions. Roman Catholicism, for its part, has changed its perception and relationship with modernity. Modernity used to be rejected as an evil interpretation of the Christian social order … Nonetheless, roughly beginning with the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholicism would officially recognize modernity as a legitimate partner in the better ordering of the world and, hence, deserving of autonomy, critical dialogue and mutual exchange” (2012, pp. 215-216).

Thus said Cardinal Tagle at the Vatican: “… the Church cannot and must not pretend to have easy answers to the dilemmas facing men and women today. Instead, it must be an attentive and listening Church … the Church must be a humble Church (taking after) Jesus and being less preoccupied by her power, prestige and position in society”. However, he seemed to contradict himself when he firmly reiterated in his Simbang Gabi message the CBCP’s hard-line stance opposing the RH bill, and called its eventual passage “unfortunate and tragic”!

Then the good Cardinal in his New Year message sounded conciliatory by calling for peace and harmony. The question is: was he signaling a readiness of the Catholic hierarchy to effect a “humble, listening and attentive Church”? If so, people expect him to exercise strong leadership by putting words into deeds. He first needs to call on the bishops, as well as encourage the conservative religious groups, to be graceful in defeat and accept a law that has long been favored by a substantial majority of Filipinos. Second, he must exhort the people to put to rest divisive issues once democratically resolved – Vox populi vox Dei – so that the country can move on.

Instead, those who opposed the bill seem bent on waylaying the law’s implementation through challenges in court, with the tacit encouragement of some bishops. This certainly is no way toward peace and harmony in the new year.

The Catholic hierarchy’s single-minded opposition to the RH law, it would seem, has led to the neglect of important church reforms. These have to do with the lack of financial transparency and accountability; ill-prepared, often meaningless and long-winded homilies; and the sexual indiscretions of clerics, in particular the long-term consequences for the women and children – to cite just a few examples that have eroded the respect and trust in the Church and led to increasing alienation of the faithful.

As well, the bishops, instead of making superstitious connections of natural calamities to the RH bill, would do well to banish religious fanaticism displayed, for example, by the tumultuous day-long Black Nazarene procession on January 9, flagellations, and crucifixions on Good Friday. These extreme acts of penance may be the unintended consequence of the inordinate emphasis on religious services vis-à-vis secular morality, in turn, resulting in the lack of integration of religion into the day-to-day conduct of secular life.

This calls to mind the early prophet Isaiah’s message about what authentic faith should be: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry; sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them … Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall quickly be healed … Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say: Here I am!” (Isaiah 58:1-9a).

What our country needs is not an imperious church but one that is consultative and considerate. A church that is a partner with government and civil society and makes constructive criticisms, not destructive comments coupled with epithets. Cardinal Tagle merely echoed Christ’s admonition to his disciples to be servant leaders (Mark, 10:43-45) when he called for a listening and humble church.

Indeed, a “society-leavening Church”, i.e., ‘a leaven mixed with the dough such that, by emptying itself, makes the dough grow to become the bread of many’ (CBCP, Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Culture, 2000, 28 Part III, no. 6).

Ernesto M. Pernia is with the UP School of Economics and formerly lead economist at ADB.