Monday, July 11, 2011

Appropriate and misplaced outrage

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

There were four things that struck me last week as the allegations of the involvement of Catholic bishops in the illegal disbursements of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office funds came to a boil.

First, that there are people in this country who are still genuinely surprised at the level and extent of corruption that is happening here; and consequently, that we are still capable of feeling outrage at these shenanigans. Theoretically (and I must note that I am glad that this is not the case), we should have already become numb and immune to these things because, for crying out loud, we eat this kind of shocking revelations for breakfast every day.

Seriously, did we really think certain institutions are impervious to corruption just because they claim to have and therefore act like they have God’s private telephone number? To put it in better perspective, did anyone really think that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions committed ten years’ worth of tomfoolery without the complicity of various influential people and institutions? I have said this before and it bears repeating over and over again—it takes a whole lot of connivance to rob a people blind; it’s not something that is done by just a few people in power although it can certainly be argued that it is driven from there.

Corruption is a systemic problem in this country; it is deeply entrenched in every nook and cranny of the bureaucracy and in many facets of our culture. Therefore it cannot be eradicated simply by hauling some people over the coils of public opinion. If we want serious changes, we need to go beyond bursting a vein during Senate investigations and filing cases in court. We need to put in place systemic changes.

To be fair though, it must be stressed that not all Catholic bishops seem to be involved in the current mess. It is probably not fair to make generalizations at this point although the attempts of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to downplay the issue by insisting that the whole thing is political motivated seem suspect. The CBCP did deny the allegations in the beginning, insisting that not a single Catholic bishop received such donations.

Second, and this is related to the first point above, there really must be some truth to the claim that we are among the “happiest” people in the world because we continue to see the funny side of even the gravest of situations. At the height of the senate hearing last week on the use of the charity funds of the PCSO to buy favors from local and religious officials, the sound byte that stuck in people’s minds and which spread faster in the rumor mill were the newly-minted phrases mitsubishop (a play on the words mitsubishi and bishop) and Sapari (safari and pari, vernacular for priest). I tell you our sense of humor is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it often enables us to reduce issues to the barest essentials; but on the other hand, it reduces the most significant of issues to a joke.

Third, some people we should hold in high esteem not only have feet of clay they are also downright reckless and shameless. If you think the two descriptions are a tad cruel, consider the first word I wanted to use which was stupid. What kind of a religious official —a bishop, no less—makes official the act of groveling for a birthday present that is worth almost two million pesos?

Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos actually wrote the following in a letter that bears the stamp of his Diocese: “…I am asking a favor from your Excellency. At present, I really need a brand-new car, possibly a 4 x 4, which I can use to reach the far-flung areas of Caraga. I hope you will never fail to give a brand new car which would serve as your birthday gift to me. For your information, I have with me a 7-year-old car which is not anymore in good running condition. Therefore, this needs to be replaced very soon. I am anticipating your favorable response on this regard. Thank you very much. Be assured of my constant support and sincerest prayers to your Excellency.” cloying phrasing leaves a bad taste in the mouth and it’s the least offensive part of the letter.

And fourth, I was struck at efforts to link the whole controversy to the Aquino administration’s supposed efforts to pass the reproductive health bill. I dare say supposed because to my mind the President has been blowing hot and cold on the RH issue. To begin with, there is no obvious concerted effort to pin down the whole Catholic hierarchy; in fact, if we are to give in to our inherent cynicism what seems more relevant in the whole thing was the recent stinging criticism of the Butuan bishop directed at the President. Second, it seems far-fetched to imagine the complicity of the chief author of the RH bill, Representative Edcel Lagman, given the fact the he is a staunch defender of Arroyo and is practically persona non-grata as far as this administration is concerned.

Of course everything is political. I suspect that all these is somehow linked to talking points of the President’s second State-of-the-Nation Address which is due in two weeks—something about there being no sacred cows in the pursuit of the straight and narrow path.

I make no bones about the fact that I fully support the passage of the RH bill and I decry efforts to obfuscate the clarity of its message and urgency. The Catholic bishops have been vociferous about their objections to the bill on moral grounds and it is tempting to point out just how hypocritical the bishops’ advocacy has become given this current controversy.

If we take out all the static about lack of propriety and political ties, the basic issue that needs to be pointed out is that the two issues have converged on a critical point: The need to uphold the constitutional provision on the separation of the Church and the State. If we are outraged over the use of PCSO funds to favor a specific religious sector, then we must also draw the line at the involvement of the church on government matters such as providing basic and necessary services related to reproductive health.

***

And still on the subject of outrage, I am amused at the misplaced outrage of Mandaluyong Mayor Benhur Abalos over those giant billboards at the banks of the Pasig River near the Guadalupe interchange showing members of the country’s rugby team the Philippine Volcanoes in Bench underwear. Abalos said the billboards were “inappropriate,” and even cited a complaint made to him by Valenzuela Mayor Sherwin Gatchalian who supposedly covered the eyes of his nephews and nieces while driving in the area so they wouldn’t see the billboards.

I am amused at the sudden attack of “selective morality” of the two mayors. They have not been complaining about the more suggestive billboards showing women in various forms of undress that also litter our major highways nor have they spoken against the various other forms of “immorality” in their respective cities such as drug abuse, poverty, or even the sad state of the environment. Even more strange was the way Abalos tried to frame his objection to the billboards. He said he didn’t ask that the billboards be torn down (pinapaalis), he said he just ask them to be removed. Go figure.

I have written in the past about the need to remove billboards in our major thoroughfare because of the physical danger they pose to the general public and because they violate aesthetics (many of them are just plain nonsensical). It just seems extremely hypocritical that we get riled up on morality when the real issue is even more basic and more urgent. We’re missing the whole point again.

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