[This paper was published in The Philippine Star, Star Science, (in three parts) May 5, 12, and 19, 2011.]

I have chosen as the theme of my talk today faith as secular morality, or simply faith as morals. I thought this might be appropriate and timely, given that tomorrow is the start of Holy Week for those of us who are Christians. But even for those of different beliefs, I thought the subject may also be of interest.

I am a practicing Catholic myself, by the way. I felt I may have a bit of a comparative advantage to talk about the topic, having been immersed in philosophy and theology in my earlier incarnation in a religious environment. Subsequently, steeped in science and empirical research in a secular milieu, then exposed to the basic material concerns and issues of developing countries, and the search for solutions.

A thematic question I would like to pose to you today is as follows: Why is it that our country, the Philippines, which is reputed to be the only Christian – nay, predominantly Catholic – nation in Asia, among the most corrupt and backward in the region? [Parenthetically, let me hasten to add that Timor Leste (just off Indonesia) is the other Christian country but it formally became a nation only recently.] To be sure, this is not the first time the question is being asked and, presumably, not the last time. But it bears repeating because this has long bugged many of our countrymen, including myself and you, too, undoubtedly, and perhaps even the international development community!

Let me illustrate the seriousness of corruption in our country with some data. The World Economic Forum’s (Davos, Switzerland) latest World Competitiveness Report (2010) shows the Philippines ranking 85th in the global competitiveness index out of 139 countries (nearly in the bottom third!). By comparison, Singapore ranks 3rd, Malaysia 26th, Thailand 38th, Indonesia 44th, Vietnam 59th. Among the 12 “pillars of competitiveness” is “institutions” for which the Philippines ranks 125th out of 139 countries. “Institutions” refer to “the rules of the game in a society or the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction” (Douglas North, Nobel Laureate in economic science, 1993). Institutions are reflected in: the “diversion of public funds” (PH ranks135th); “public trust in politicians” (134th); ethical behavior of firms (129th); and “irregular payments and bribes” (128th). These connote misgovernance which, in turn, manifests as corruption. Note that corruption exists also in private business firms and private individuals are involved as corruptors and/or “corruptees”. Corruption directly impinges on a country’s global competitiveness and, in turn, its economic growth, inequality and poverty.

Thus, the issue of corruption is of great significance as it relates to our country’s economic and social advancement. It is common knowledge that while the Philippines was among the leading and most promising economies in Asia in the 1950s through the early 70s, it has fallen behind so badly that it is now among the poorest in the region. To illustrate this point with the latest (ADB, 2009) comparable data available, among the original ASEAN-4 countries (excluding Singapore), the Philippines’ [gross] national income per capita (2007) was US$ 1,620 compared with Malaysia at $6,540, Thailand at $3,400, and Indonesia at $1,650. Note that Indonesia’s average income per person less than 20 years ago was only half that of our country’s. Further, the corresponding official national poverty rates (ca. 2006) are: Philippines, 26.5%; Malaysia, 3.6%; Thailand, 9.6%; and Indonesia, 15.4%.

Christian – nay, Catholic – yet corrupt, and poor? Sounds like an oxymoron! An intriguing question, indeed, to say the least. What is the root cause of our malaise as a nation? I submit that it may have to do with the weak link – or lack thereof – between faith (or religion) and practice, or how we actually see and live our faith. Much earlier, Fr. Jaime Bulatao, SJ, referred to this phenomenon as “split-level Christianity”. I shall use the expression “dysfunctional link between faith and the day-to-day conduct of secular life”, or faith-practice disconnect, for short. Let me illustrate this more concretely with some common observations.

We Filipinos actually appear very religious. We go to church to hear mass, or participate in the services and receive the sacraments regularly. In fact, many feel guilty if they miss mass on Sundays or even on weekdays. We are generous in our contributions and donations to the church. However, outside the church, at work, on the road or elsewhere, behavior often does not reflect this manifest religiosity. It is no secret, in fact, that many prominent politicians and businessmen or political and business leaders, who publicly display such religiosity and generosity are widely known to be involved in nontrivial corrupt practices. One interpretation of this seeming contradiction or inconsistency – the faith-practice disconnect – is that religiosity and generosity are considered a balm, the saving grace that can expiate and make up for sins and misdeeds.

It is possible that the lack of integration of faith into secular life – or religious faith not driving secular behavior – has been encouraged, wittingly or unwittingly, by the emphasis given by our church leaders on rituals rather than on secular morality. Such emphasis appears to start already in grade school catechism. An unintended consequence of what may be called “ritualistic religiosity” detached from secular morality is hypocrisy that appears so common among our leaders, prominent citizens and others, who are supposed to be the role models in society.

On this score, we shouldn’t exclude ourselves. Often, we are quite faithful in terms of the external signs or rituals of our religion but not in its application to practice. In academic parlance, we are often good in theory but not in practice – a comment that is not very flattering to professors – and graduates, if I may add!

The irony is that this faith-practice disconnect persists despite – but probably more because of – the real lack of separation between Church and State in our country – a separation that is clearly provided for in our Constitution. Unlike in other countries, including Catholic countries in other parts of the world, where such separation is strictly observed, the Catholic Church in the Philippines seems to intervene not infrequently in secular concerns and responsibilities of the State, with the latter often relenting. I have earlier referred to this situation as the ‘hard Church and soft State’. This apparent anomaly bears emphasis as, arguably, it has been at the root of our economic backwardness as a nation.

A case in point is the long-running controversy on the issue of population policy, of which a principal instrument is the reproductive health (RH) or responsible parenthood (RP) bill, or simply family planning (FP) program that has been on the drawing board and languishing in Congress for over 10 years now. The major stumbling block has been the opposition of the Catholic Church hierarchy despite the fact that the predominant majority of Filipinos – regardless of religious affiliation, and across various socioeconomic classes and regional groups – have favored such a policy, as consistently borne out by reputable surveys (by SWS and Pulse Asia) over the years.

This majority view is logical and makes a lot of sense since population policy is directed at economic development and poverty reduction which are secular concerns and responsibilities of the State. The experience from across Asia – as well as Catholic Latin America – shows that population policy, articulated by government-funded family planning programs, is a critical component of economic development strategy. Our own research – which is consistent with the development literature – shows that the Philippines’ persisting high poverty incidence can be largely explained by bad governance, weak economic growth, wealth and income inequality, and rapid population growth.

The Catholic Church hierarchy and other conservative groups oppose population policy calling the RH bill as “pro-abortion”, “anti-life”, and “immoral”. However, a serious reading of the bill will show that such characterizations are utterly unfair and a distortion of the bill’s true meaning and intent, which is contraception, i.e., ex ante – not ex post – fertilization. Modern contraceptives (pill, condom, and IUD), as you know, prevent ovulation and/or the meeting of the ovum and the sperm. In fact, the scientific opinion of WHO – which is the internationally accepted one – is that a fertilized ovum becomes viable after – not before – implantation in the uterus. In the context of the pro and contra RH debate, it is well to recall what Albert Einstein once remarked: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.

So much on the RH controversy, which could easily be the subject of another talk. The reason I thought of digressing on to it is that it seems like a good example of where the position of the Catholic Church hierarchy is off the mark and insistence of its authority is misplaced. Yet, while the State recognizes the constraints on development posed by rapid population growth, particularly among the poorest Filipinos, it has been immobilized from acting on the problem by the Catholic hierarchy’s adamant position, “as well as the tendency of some politicians to cater to the demands of well-organized and impassioned single-issue groups for the sake of expediency” (Pernia, Alabastro-Quimbo, et al., UPSE 2011). Paradoxically, these groups include some of the more affluent Catholics who have fewer children than the poor precisely because they can practice at will modern and effective family planning.

The question currently being faced by many Catholics, I think, can be phrased as follows: Am I being unfaithful, ungodly, sinful or immoral if I support the RH bill? You can probably readily guess my answer to the question. But let me pose another question in the context of religion as secular morality: who is being moral – one who follows this particular Catholic doctrine and goes to the sacraments but engages in corrupt practices, or one who disobeys this doctrine and perhaps hardly goes to the sacraments but is upright, fair and considerate in his/her relations with others?

An eye-popping remark made by a high official of the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Family and Life during last year’s electoral campaign period went like this: ‘Voters should support the candidate who is against the RH bill even if he/she is corrupt, not the candidate who favors the bill though he/she may not be corrupt’.

My dear graduates, I think a basic problem in our society is that there is a lot more emphasis given to religiosity (which tends to be of the external form) than to secular morality. There is a need for some rebalancing such that greater attention is given to secular morality. Faith that does not translate as moral behavior is hollow and meaningless, while moral behavior without faith can be rudderless and may not be sustainable. Faith nourishes secular morality while moral conduct enriches faith. In other words, faith as morals rather than faith and morals.

Buddhism, Shintoism, and Hinduism, we are told, are regarded more as a way of life than a religion in a narrow sense. Similarly, Confucianism is considered as a philosophy that guides life. Is it a coincidence that Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand, for instance, are more civic-minded, less contentious, and progressive societies?

On the other hand, that many Catholic countries in Latin America are more progressive or advanced (in terms of less poverty) than the Philippines may be attributed to the strict separation of Church and State, as mentioned earlier. The issue of family planning has long been settled in those countries because the line is clearly drawn between Church and State responsibilities. A Mexican Dominican priest, Fr. Julian Cruzalta, who was here a month back (March 2011) told us in a conference that while Mexican Catholics are actually quite religious in terms of going to church and receiving the sacraments, they follow the State’s, not the Church’s, line with respect to family planning. In Chile, the Church has long ceased imposing its position on people and collaborates, in fact, with the government in the implementation of family planning programs as part of the country’s development strategy.

My dear graduates, I have probably said more than enough of what I think is an underlying cause of our social malaise. I may have provoked or even disturbed you with the focus of my talk on the dysfunctional link between faith and morals. I wanted to challenge you on the critical need for our society to translate faith into practice, that is to say, religion as secular morality – whatever your individual faith or religion might be. If you are already living and practicing your faith, then the challenge is to extend that to others. That would be a real contribution to our society toward reducing corruption and helping our country progress and improve the lives of our poor kababayans.

As our national hero Jose Rizal once said ‘the youth is the hope of the fatherland’. That was also meant to be a challenge. Take up the challenge and be the outstanding performers and shining leaders in whatever you do, as you join the world outside your alma mater, so that you can contribute to changing the course of our country for the better.