For God and Country

Full disclosure: I was born into a Catholic family, and went to a Catholic school during my elementary and high school years. In the third grade, I suffered from chronic nightmares where I was condemned to Hell, surrounded by demons and eaten alive by an everlasting flame on account of my religion teacher’s repeated lessons about the “ocean of fire”. In my high school freshman year, I seriously thought about entering the nunnery, and occasionally imagined what it felt like to be cocooned in a gray, antiseptic habit. That idea lasted only a few days, tops, because I realized that I hated kneeling longer than three minutes, and I wasn’t fond of saying the rosary everyday, which takes up at least 10 minutes on the cold cement floor (there were other more important reasons, too, but they came later).

The last time I went to a proper Sunday mass was more than a decade ago. Liberation theology’s concept of Christ as a member of the poor I find appealing and ingenious — I wish I could have invented that. I rather like reading about saints, particularly the short lives of virgin martyrs. When National Geographic broadcast the Judas Gospel, I and millions of Filipinos stayed glued to the TV to watch the program. I enjoy church singing and churches in general. Indeed, I can still recite the Act of Contrition, although I have forgotten the last time I said it in its proper context… I have no regrets.

Now that I have confessed my sins and omissions, on we go with the real subject at hand. The week The Da Vinci Code opened in theaters, the city of Manila passed an ordinance banning the film, citing a penal code provision which disallows the showing of any movie that offends religious groups. Then a group of rabid, Manila-based Catholics burned the book upon which the movie was based. These people take pride in living in the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia. I don’t know why; it’s not as if the Vatican extends financial assistance to its members. The Philippine President’s alter-ego, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, called the movie “blasphemous” and urged the cinemas to ban it. Despite that, or more accurately, in spite of that, the movie went on to become a blockbuster here, just like everywhere else.

The architect of this media event which stoked the people’s curiosity about the film (and boosted ticket sales) was the Manila mayor himself, Jose “Lito” Atienza. Atienza is a jolly-looking, pudgy man who could be mistaken for someone on perpetual vacation. Give him a margarita and he’s ready to go. His favorite article of clothing is a Hawaiian shirt; a clever political move as it’s loud, vibrant, and aids the voting public’s memory. (Who’s running for mayor? You know, the guy in the bright orange and blue shirt with sailboats on it!). But beware of men who look like Jimmy Buffet. Underneath this seemingly harmless favorite-uncle exterior lies the most Catholic personality in Philippine politics. On the matter of making a fuss about The Da Vinci Code, Atienza trumped the president of the immensely powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo. Lagdameo kept silent on the matter so as not to add to the media hype the movie was already getting.

Atienza, for liberals, the Left, and feminists, is the Philippine’s messenger of the Dark Side. His banning of The Da Vinci Code movie and his orchestration of the book burning are just part of the list of things he has done in the name of religion. Atienza is also a key member of Pro-Life, a group that campaigns against abortion and contraceptives, as if the two are interchangeable. He banned the selling of contraceptives in Manila, despite his city being home to the poorest barrios in the metropolis. He doesn’t restrain himself to simply rhetoric. Aurora Silayan-Go, the feisty founder of the Foundation for Adolescent Development, (which focuses on the health and sexuality concerns of youth), told me that Atienza’s minions had poked around the Foundation’s office to see if there were contraceptives lying about. Perhaps they hoped to catch staffers showering condoms on some innocent 17-year-olds.

Atienza’s refusal to make contraceptives available to his citizens is part of the overall policy of the Philippine government to kowtow to, or exploit religion … whichever is convenient at the moment. In 2004, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared that the government would not compel local government executives to endorse contraceptive use among their constituents. The decision, she said, rested on the couples themselves. But what if a pro-contraceptive couple lives in a city governed by somebody like Atienza who has declared war against artificial family planning methods? They would have to get their pills, condoms, and information somewhere.

If this were the United States, I could sue Atienza’s floral-shirted ass all the way to the Supreme Court for violating the Constitutional provision mandating the separation of church and the state. But here, the church and the state are separate entities on paper only. If I put a motion before the Supreme Court to ban morning prayer (which starts with the sign of the cross, in public schools) I would be viewed as the anti-Christ. When, really, all I’d want is to spare the Muslim, Sikh and Protestant kids from the trauma of being left out. (During high school, one of my good friends was a Sikh; her name’s Rajwant, and being a member of the race that produced Aishwarya Rai, she had the right to become one of the popular, pretty girls that reign in high schools. But I could tell that four years of high school brought her so much discomfort, and not just because her parents were extremely strict. She couldn’t be like the rest of us. She couldn’t, and didn’t, join the religion club like the rest of the meek sheep did, but she had to kneel during Rosary, even though she had no use for it. During Communion, the rest of us would make a beeline for it and she would be left alone in her seat. I thought the whole thing was unfair.)

Catholicism, like siesta, is one of the lasting imprints of the Spanish colonial legacy. In fact, we are more rabid Catholics than the Spaniards; perhaps, this is a case of the colonial subject trying to please the master. At least Spain has divorce and gay marriage. Here, bills pushing for divorce or gay marriage have been submitted in the Congress for several years, but none survived, even at the committee level. Introducing such a bill is political suicide. Recently, a party-list group composed of gays and lesbians has come out to join politics. Their small coverage in the news was angled as something funny, a kind of absurd, believe-it-or-not type of story. Sadly, that wasn’t surprising.

Here in the Philippines, the Church is a formidable political player. As such, it is the only political party that has enjoyed consistent grass roots support throughout the years. People listen and trust their parish priests more than they trust their elected officials. In the past, it’s been said that there are only two things a mother would want her son to be: either a doctor or a priest. Come election time, politicians court church and sect leaders because some of them tell the flock who to vote for. The Church is conscious of its role in politics, but since Archbishop Angel Lagdameo assumed the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines leadership last year, it has been careful to stay away from political bickering (but quick to butt in if the issue is about the environment, and I commend Lagdameo for this).

To be fair, the Church has done wonders in certain areas for the people, especially on environmental concerns. It has opposed and called for the investigation of erring mining firms. The Chamber of Mines had gone as far as sending a long, detailed explanation to Lagdameo to placate him and his men. It wasn’t effective. Without the Church, it would be almost impossible for the success of the first EDSA Revolution, which was prompted by the call of the late Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin for the faithful to flock to the streets in protest. Conditioned to obey the men of God, we did as we were told and took to the streets. Faced by a phalanx of nuns, priests, and ordinary citizens bathing in the aura of blessedness, the soldiers nor their boss, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, ever stood a chance.

This historic event enabled the Catholic Church to consolidate its power from the grassroots and expand its political influence to the national stage. From local, it went national. The messiah role they played at EDSA stuck, and gave them license to play various political roles. It also happened that Marcos’ predecessor, Corazon Aquino, was a devout Catholic who listened to the media savvy Cardinal Sin. Until now, when asked to comment on political affairs, she never fails to advise people to pray, which she has been doing ever since. The Church has so much power it escapes questions. Or if the Church does answer the demands of progressive groups, it always hides behind the it-says-so-in-the-Bible reasoning. How could I fight such an abstract thing as faith? And who dares question the intentions of people who helped liberate the country from martial law? The whole brotherhood is accountable to no one, except to God. And this problem is compounded by the fact that individuals who profess to be allies of the church and acting on its behalf are given the same undeserved influence. They are treated as if their intentions are true and pure, when in reality, it’s all about politics and self-preservation.

If I was kind and in a charitable mood, I’d say that what we have here is a love-hate relationship between the Church and the public. But I find it fitting to be less charitable these days; Middle Age thinking in the 21st century makes me cranky. One’s right to follow the dictates of Christianity is not above the rights of a million women to safe health care, nor does one’s religious belief necessarily make good laws. Oh, you people of little faith in the people.