Most Filipinos consider themselves devout Christians and Catholics. The churches are so full on Sundays and holidays they have parking problems. There’s a sizeable group of people who regularly confess their sins, and take holy communion. Some go to church everyday and practically live there.

Church and State may be officially separate, but few government offices lack a Santo Nino and/or Virgin Mary shrine. The name of God falls from the lips of bureaucrats as often as the names of their bosses. And we all observe the Christian holidays with a ferocity Islamic fundamentalists may well envy.

One would think that with a people so devout the country would be among the most moral and most righteous on the planet, and Filipinos among the most peaceful, most tolerant, most forgiving–the kindest, most compassionate, gentlest–of all peoples.

Filipinos themselves know better. The country is known for the world class corruption of both its government as well as the way it does most things. The policeman at the corner is not averse to taking a bribe, but people who call themselves businessmen/women also sell shoddy goods at outlandish prices.

There’s a crime called estafa, most of the cases of which will take your breath away for the range of dishonesty and plain crookedness some Filipinos are capable of. Honesty is so rare in this country a taxi driver who returns property left in his cab is immediately hailed as a hero, rewarded with a cash incentive, and his children given scholarships.

And then there’s the political violence and the killings. The Ten Commandments says don’t kill, but people who call themselves Christians and Catholics have obviously been ordering the cold blooded murder of people they don’t even know, but whom they label “communists” and trouble-makers–people like activists and journalists–or are doing the killing themselves.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a devout Catholic if there’s one, was on her knees before Pope Benedict the XVI and was later in Fatima, Portugal early this week. A Malacanang press release claims that when in Rome she had told the Pope that her administration was doing everything it can to stop the political killings that have distinguished her tainted watch as Philippine head of state.

On the other hand, gushed my favorite broadsheet, by visiting Fatima–where official Catholic doctrine says the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917–Mrs. Arroyo had become the first Philippine president to have ever gone there, specifically to thank the Virgin for her husband Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo’s surviving a near fatal heart ailment early this year.

At around the same time that Mrs. Arroyo was displaying how devout a Catholic she is by telling the Pope what he presumably wanted to hear–and later, while she was thanking Our Lady of Fatima for her husband’s second lease on life–her chief of intelligence was either ensconced in his office, playing golf with his buddies or doing whatever else intelligence chiefs do, while his military lawyer was giving the Commission on Human Rights the usual song and dance (i.e., a complicated, improbable story) about how innocent the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) is of the abduction of Jonas Burgos and other unfortunates.

A day or so after Mrs. Arroyo’s Rome visit, another activist, the youngest member of the national council of the party-list group Bayan Muna, was abducted in Koronadal City, about a week after a Protestant pastor was similarly abducted, tortured, and, in a rare occurrence, released.

Mrs. Arroyo’s publicists (among them that great gift to Philippine journalism, Ignacio Bunye) say the Pope is up to date on Philippine affairs because Filipinos are such devout Catholics, so he probably knows when someone’s telling the truth or lying through his or her teeth.

It is of course possible that the Pope–a former member of the Hitler Youth, and, in keeping with the Germanic tradition that put The Fuhrer in power, politically and doctrinally an arch-conservative–isn’t really all that interested in this far-flung outpost of the Catholic faith. But assuming that he is, and notices the disparity between what Mrs. Arroyo has been saying about human rights and what’s really happening in the cities and villages of the country of our anguish, isn’t Mrs. Arroyo at least a wee bit worried that lying to the Pope may be some kind of sin?

Apparently not. A tradition especially embedded in Philippine officialdom allows bureaucrats their devotion and their sins. It’s that tradition which says that words don’t have to agree with reality. What matters most are the words.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, for example, is among those Arroyo officials most adept at the practice, which is why, when ISAFP chief General Delfin Bangit refused to appear before the Human Rights Commission the other day to shed light on the Burgos disappearance, he could still say with a straight face that Bangit wasn’t being uncooperative.

And then there’s Raul Gonzalez and his twin Norberto… but let’s not get into that.

Most outstanding of all is how the killings, abductions and other human rights violations are taking place in a country whose rulers not only insist it’s still a democracy, but who also insist– between the lines of the statements they make, whether to the Pope, the UN, or Amnesty International–that it’s for democracy.

It’s nothing of the kind, of course. What it’s for is power, wealth, dominance–all the lusts that Catholicism says are sins, but to the pursuit of which the political class is far more devoted than to any faith.



Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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