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Altar of Secrets: A Review

In the Philippines, the Roman Catholic Church (RC) remains a credible institution, trusted by more Filipinos even compared to the popular Aquino Administration. Furthermore, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is projected by the media as an organized whole with a single mission for the nation. This is not the side of the Church that Aries Rufo tries to show. In his work, he tries to permeate through the moral authority and institutional unity that is visible in the church. He writes, in his introduction:

“This book attempts to make an honest portrayal of the men in white vestments. It seeks to demystify the people perched on a moral high ground and aims to show that they are human as we are – vulnerable to mistakes, faults and wrongdoing, and susceptible to temptation. They may be divinely inspired, but they could not deny their humanity and all their weaknesses. We think they have superhuman powers, but they too have feet of clay.”

For my part, I will summarize the points that struck me in this book — and only that. I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive theory of the church as a matter of method. Such an attempt would require a huge amount of data and related literature that is not available to me at the moment. I hope that the reader will also avoid the pitfall of simplified generalization in relation to the church. Now to my reflections:

First, I see the book as an exposition of power dynamics inside the Roman Catholic Institution. Owing to the fact that the RC persists in playing an active role even in the most secular issues of the country, conflict between the CBCP, the government and some sectors of civil society seems to be almost a staple in Philippine newsrooms.  For months, broadsheets and websites churned out word wars between supporters of the Reproductive Health law and the church and its disciples that oppose it. It even went to the point of active campaigning and smearing of different candidates in the 2013 National Elections, a practice quite similar with the Iglesia ni Cristo. But despite considerable discussion on its role in the secular, the book threw open the struggles not only within the CBCP but also in the whole roster of clergy. One particular story in the book is how former President Arroyo enjoyed a very close relationship with several bishops and was always within a phone call away. And while the bishops benefited much from this partnership, former President Arroyo reaped much from it too. During her rule, which was marked by political crisis, her allies managed to water down the statement to be released by the CBCP after much talk among their colleagues. The book discussed the nitty and gritty details of similar instances–the erring priests, the pajero bishops and the raging debates about a draft of guidelines in dealing with priests’ sexual cases that neither had the teeth to deter offenders nor the approval of the Holy See.

Second, it gave the church a human face. The life of a priest usually is larger than administering the Sacraments, as the clergy are given other tasks like managing the material wealth of the different parishes, bishoprics or church-run corporations. And like many human institutions, mistakes are expected. What Rufo claims, however, is that these mishaps are hidden from the public view or endured for the sake of ‘peace’. For instance, a bishop favored by a famous Filipino Cardinal is alleged to have maintained a sexual relationship with a woman and the fruit of their affair is ensured by a trust fund, which Rufo maintains to taken from church funds, that the child will be able to access upon maturity. Other examples include Monte de Piedad, a church-run bank that experienced losses and yet punishment is limited to a transfer of assignment. Practices like those are believed to cultivate a culture of impunity inside the church hierarchy because of poor implementation of rules and the limitations on sanctions imposed on favorite clergies. It is in here that the author argues that the same standard the church imposes on secular institutions like accountability and transparency be applied also inside the church. As a reader, I believe it showed that the clergy are as rooted as we are in the ‘ways of the world’ and are brought up through the same process of socialization as any of us, thereby making them suffer (or enjoy) the same biases, prejudices and discrimination that we were born into. What sealed this view for me was when Rufo reported that guidelines drafted to punish priests who engaged in sexual affairs feature a bias against homosexual priests. The guideline was clear that priests caught engaging in homosexual affairs should immediately be removed from office while those with heterosexual affairs are not only forgiven but some Archbishoprics even have offices whose mission is to see to it that the children of these priests are taken care of.

Third, and most importantly, it showed points and attempts at renewal both inside the church and its role in the Philippine state. Aside from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the book narrates how the church is participating in efforts for accountability and transparency in the local government towards the ‘Daang Matuwid’. Recognizing the RC as organizations that have ready country-wide access to manpower, the late DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo partnered with some bishops on a project dubbed as Ugnayan ng Baranggay at Simbahan (UBAS), which tried to harness the Church’s potential in building consciousness in the baranggay level because of its rootedness, and also as a potent watchdog against corruption.

But the reform of the church is not limited to its partnership with the state. In a certain Diocese in the Philippines, a Bishop has already instituted reforms in the finances of the church by requiring Parish Priests to pass reports and began to schedule meetings with each parish priests regarding the said issue. Along with this are some dioceses that equalized the compensation package for priests to avoid competition on Parish assignments especially among the richer parishes.

The efforts of the Church to assist in government projects and begin holdings its manpower accountable is a counterbalance for both the impunity propagated either through a false sense of mercy or lack of will in the part of some of the bishops, and the neo-conservatism that the church is seen to emphasize in the here and now. It may be the start of seeing the church in a positive light especially in terms of social progress. Like I argued in a previous essay, as social scientists, we should avoid relegating the church and religion in general as always obstacles to progress, as these have been key to positive social change in the past.

But we should take Rufo’s  account critically. A blog is claiming that most of Rufo’s stories are hearsays and not based on facts or hard evidence. I also met a priest closely acquainted with one of the bishops mentioned in the books who denied the reality of one whole chapter in the book. The allegations and the hopes contained in his account are significant and worthy of much attention, but this should not be a reason to rush too much in condemning or rejoicing for the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines.

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