Business World, 21 January 2013


The newly enacted Sin Tax and RH laws, besides their intended aims, have important long-term consequences, such as the cutting of behemoths to size. A “behemoth” is a mythological beast mentioned in Job 40:15-24, and metaphorically refers to a big and mighty entity. The name seems appropriate in reference to the powerful tobacco and liquor industries, besides other monopolies and oligarchies in the country.

Similarly, the biblical metaphor is perhaps even more apt for the Church (read: Catholic hierarchy). With its quasi-omnipotence the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), supported by conservative religious groups, managed to scuttle in the late 1970s the government’s family planning program that began in 1970 as among the first in Asia (outside Japan) and looked up to as a model.

Subsequent attempts by civil society or the government to revive the program or come up with population and development policy in any shape or form met strong resistance. The involvement of the academe in population and development research and policy discussion spanned decades. Eminent academics from the University of the Philippines alone included National Scientists Mercedes B. Concepcion, Jose Encarnacion, Jr. (deceased), and Raul V. Fabella.

It had to take two decades before the RH bill could be stitched together and introduced in Congress, and then another 14 years before the bill could go through the wringer owing to the slings and arrows shot at it by groups led by the Catholic hierarchy. But no sooner had the RH bill been enacted into law late last year than the opposition submitted challenges against it in the Supreme Court — apparently with the CBCP’s encouragement.

What is disappointing to many is the Catholic hierarchy’s contradictory statements and confusing signals. Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle in November 2012 around the time he was made a cardinal at the Vatican said: “… it [the Church] must be an attentive and listening … [and] humble Church….” In effect echoing Christ’s own admonition to his disciples: “… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-45)

However, about a month later Cardinal Tagle remained staunchly behind the bishops’ waging of a war to kill the RH bill by all means — fair or foul — and called its passage “unfortunate and tragic.” Then in his New Year message the good Cardinal sounded conciliatory by calling for peace and harmony. Yet some bishops have been obstinate trying to extend their decades-old war. Just recently Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles is reported to have called on the people of Batangas to reject electoral candidates who supported the RH law. In the same vein, Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes declared that a politician’s position on the RH law will be among the criteria in the voter’s guidelines for the May 13 elections, adding that people should not put in public service candidates who favor the RH law.

Observes constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ: “I am disturbed by preachers who use their opposition to the [RH] law as a way of defeating electoral candidates who favor or have favored the law. Tactics are being used which can have the effect of driving Catholics away from the Catholic Church or at least from Sunday Masses where the preachers subject the audience to prolonged attacks on the RH law and to threats of damnation against those who favor the law” (Inquirer 01/14/13, p. A19).

It is well-known that when the issue of birth control was taken up at Vatican II (1963-64) of the 2,500 or so bishops participating in the Council, those opposed to it were greatly outnumbered by those in favor. Yet Pope Paul VI decided to remand the issue to a smaller meeting of mostly conservative bishops who obviously upheld the opposition to modern contraception. Keen observers and analysts, including Catholic theologians, have opined that the supreme magisterium simply did not want a diminution of its traditional authority — which is precisely what the Philippine bishops seem to be trying hard to cling on to.

However, the opposition of the hierarchy to contraception in other Catholic countries has so mellowed that the issue has long been dead and buried in that part of the world. It is time the bishops in our country listened to the voice of the people and showed humility by putting this acrimonious issue to rest. Their obdurate pride can only further erode the people’s respect and trust in the Church and hasten the falling out of its faithful who are the true life of the Church.

The tobacco and liquor industries, it appears, have mostly ceased their protestations and accepted the people’s verdict on sin taxes. Sooner or later the Catholic hierarchy will have to realize that it cannot go on with its old ways of lording it over the government and the wider citizenry, in effect holding the entire nation hostage from taking on the demands of modernity.

With rudimentary issues such as the time-consuming and costly RH and sin tax debates — and hopefully the FOI bill as well — out of the way, the government and civil society can focus on gut economic issues having to do with, inter alia, the country’s poor investment climate and strong peso, as discussed by Chikiamco and Bernardo, respectively, in the two immediately previous “Introspective” columns.

Addressing those issues successfully would be among the collateral benefits stemming from the behemoths cut to size, facilitating thereby long-run inclusive development.