We’re not one normally for following mass fetishes, but today we’re going to make an exception. The latest buzz phrase, used universally to disparage people from reading the news and forming their own opinion as to its weight and veracity, is ‘Fake News’. It’s as if by uttering this phrase, the argument, opinion and analysis of any article automatically disappears. ‘Fake News’ is used as a hazardous waste sign, a health warning – ‘Read This At Your Peril’.
What it actually is though is the last refuge for failed argument; a hiding place for the fickle and the desperate, and a sinister attempt to stifle freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
We were therefore intrigued to see recently that The Volatilian™ had been added to the list of ‘Fake News Sites’ by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ Episcopal Commission on the Laity website. We thank them for that because it tells us we’re doing our job. We’re questioning this unaccountable institution and we’ve evidently hit a nerve.
For the record, the Chairman of the Episcopal Commission on the Laity and its spiritual director is Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the Auxiliary Bishop of Manila and next in line to the Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle.
An unapologetic political activist in the mould of the late Cardinal Jaime Sin – a man who could blend politics and religion with the deftness of a cocktail mixologist – Pabillo is a strong believer in the Church’s right to involve itself in the affairs of state. He is a leading critic of the War on Drugs and mining – particularly foreign-mining projects. We don’t know if he approved our inclusion on the list, but if he did and that’s his way of handling inconvenient truths then accountability in the Church requires a Requiem Mass.
And so here we go. The CBCP, in this case through its lay apostolate, is the publisher of Fake News. It doesn’t respond; it dismisses. It reasons not by discourse, it proclaims by autocratic diktat. It genuinely believes it has that right, the power and the authority – possibly the divine right – to summarily banish any critic. In its mind it can never be questioned and so men of supposed learning need do nothing more than cry “Fake News”.
As we know, the CBCP has never been in the business of explaining its position, but now when it reads an article which puts it in a difficult light, instead of responding to it with even a modicum of scholarship, it simply shouts “Fake News” and washes its hands of any further responsibility. That comes as no surprise to us, elements of the hierarchy of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church has been behaving that way since the time of the Spanish friars. They believe they’re answerable to no one. The government is answerable, the people are answerable, but not the Church.
Their ultimate get-out is that God will be their judge – and we’ll say, they’re right, He will be.
But while we’re dealing in the corporeal world, an institution that holds sway over around 80% of a country’s population, one that has the ability and the machinery to determine and direct the course of so many people’s lives, it should always be called to account. It demands that of its congregants; they demand that of it. Its role is as a shepherd, not some Svengali in clerical clothing.
The excesses of Church authority are well documented and sadly, down through time, they’ve brought this institution into disrepute. But while most branches of the universal Church has learnt from those errors, the Philippine Church continues to perpetuate them.
This shepherd presides over some of the worst social degradation and deprivation anywhere. And laying all the blame at the door of successive governments is not them doing their job. It’s avoiding it; making it someone else’s problem. They may work among the poor to some degree but they’ve done little to alleviate the poverty.
This is an extremely wealthy institution; if it was a public-listed entity, by assets it would be the largest corporation on the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) where it has a number of investments – in banking stocks and others.
Here’s a snapshot. In 2015, the Archdiocese of Manila, one of the world’s richest diocese – alone – had just shy of US$600 million tied up in investments on the PSE. This was largely accounted for by the 327,904,251 shares in the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI). This equates to 8.35% of all BPI stock, making it the bank’s fifth-largest shareholder and giving the Church a seat on the bank’s directorial board. The Jaro Archdiocese had 491,385 BPI shares (in 2015 worth PHP46.19 million), while the Archdiocese of Zamboanga had 269,982 BPI shares (in 2015 worth PHP25.38 million).
Other listed companies in which the Church invested included First Philippine Holdings Corporation, a member of the Lopez Group; Philex Petroleum (the oil and gas arm of Philex Mining), Philodrill (oil exploration); Concrete Aggregates Corp (construction); Central Azucarera de Tarlac (sugar processing); San Miguel Corp (food and beverages); Ayala Corp (diversified), Phinma Corp (investments) and ISM Communication Corp (telecoms).
Furthermore, not all shares are in the name of the Church, some are known to have been lodged in the name of bishops. But these are just Church stockholdings we have knowledge of. There are likely others – smaller tranches which companies aren’t required to disclose.
On top of that, outside the government, the Church is the country’s biggest land owner; its real-estate portfolio overshadows that of SM Prime Holdings. It’s also involved in a range of businesses from education to health care. And for all that it pays zero tax and its books cannot be scrutinised. And for our readers’ benefit, none of this is Fake News; unlike the Church’s books, it’s all a matter of public record.
We’re not saying it’s wrong for the Church to invest on the PSE, or to run businesses or to own large amounts of land and property. But when we place all that wealth by the side of the abject poverty and destitution that’s blighted this country for so many generations; when we contrast the lives of well-fed priests and bishops with the wretched existence that millions endure as they struggle to get their daily bread – and often fail to – when we look at where the clergy go at night to get their rest and compare that to the hovels with their open sewers and broken roofs, where the poor lay down their heads, we can’t help but wonder if this was God’s scheme or man’s.
And we question the Church about that.
And we question it about this too. What right under the Philippine Constitution do the bishops have to influence government policy – and worse, campaign against it by invoking its self-proclaimed moral authority over the masses? This is the Church that threatened the previous president of this country, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, with excommunication if he persisted with the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RPRH Act) – even though under its Canon Law it couldn’t excommunicate him. So this is a Church that’s not above issuing threats.
Now it seeks to sow dissent between the people and the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. It doesn’t like his policies so it paints him as a force of evil. And the pulpits and the preaching are used not for spreading the Good News, but – in his case – for spouting the bad.
The low-key investigation going on within the Church into sex abuse by priests which we highlighted in our 22 February article, When fathers sin, is not Fake News – it’s factual and the CBCP is well aware of that. But it wants it kept from the public eye; the flock must not know about what its priests have been up to; nor must the faithful know that the Church has been hiding all this from them. “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth,” as Buddha said, and now the story’s out.
But to simply say that these are internal matters for the Church to deal with, privately, in its own way is unacceptable. Priests who rape and molest children should not be above the law of the land. They tried that in Ireland and the US and Australia and the Church there paid a very heavy price.
Nor is it Fake News that the clergy uses its homilies to politic – to exert political influence over the flock as we pointed out on 5 February, Dicing with death. Putting out carefully crafted propaganda through its radio station, Radio Veritas Asia, is one thing; using the Mass as a political soap box is quite another. The bishops use of pastoral letters is also questionable – these were never intended as political pamphlets and yet with the CBCP often as not they’re just that. They may contain some scriptural passages but their purpose is regularly purely political. The Church’s opposition to federalism, for example, appears in a recent one.
We understand full well Rome’s position on artificial contraception but even in Rome couples can buy condoms and they’re not told from the pulpit – as CBCP president, Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas did recently – that they should reject “mutual self-degradation” and “shun the ways of selfishness”. Duterte’s dual condom conduits. That was not Fake News, nor is it that the Church is still working to have the RPRH Act rescinded.
Our article of 13 October last year, Clerical error of judgement danger, analysed the cleft stick which we believe the Church is in regarding how to handle the Duterte phenomenon – his overwhelming popularity with an electorate which is also the Church’s congregation. At that time, that was our opinion which we were free to express. It’s a democratic right and it doesn’t require the Church’s blessing. In that article we said this: “Under former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the bishops operated a quid-pro quo arrangement – political concessions for ecclesiastical support”. Again, that was not Fake News; and again the Church knows it.
The point in all this is we’re not in the Fake News business and we stand by what we write. There are many good men in this Church; many in the CBCP. But there are enough – and powerful ones – who put politics and the censoring of news above all else. Furthermore, we should like to point out, we’re not against the Church – far from it, we want it to carry on for another 2,000 years and another 2,000 after that. What we are against is what all Catholics should oppose and that’s corruption, in whatever form, that threatens and could ultimately destroy this institution. And that’s why bishops and priests must always be held to account. After all, the Church does not belong to the CBCP; it belongs to the people – that’s what makes it the Church.
“All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth”. – Pope John XXIII