This blog features some of the author's lengthy essays on sacred scriptures, theology and history.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


By Lope Coles Robredillo, SThD

WHEN THE PHILIPPINE Ambassador to the Vatican presented her credentials to the Pope not so long ago, the Holy Father pointed out that “the struggle against poverty in the Philippines calls for honesty, integrity and unwavering fidelity to the principles of justice, especially on the part of those entrusted with positions of governance and public administration.”  Although the presidential spokesman opined that this was addressed to those who aspire for leadership in the coming elections, commentators took this as an indictment against the Arroyo administration for its failure to solve poverty, owing to the dearth of moral underpinnings in the exercise of governance.  However this is interpreted, there is no doubt that, if the Philippine society is really to be liberated from the shackles of misery, those in position of governance have to adhere to moral standards and principles.

            For how explain our transmogrification from the most progressive country in southeast Asia to almost the most sluggish one, our dubious honor of being the most corrupt nation in Asia, our inability to pay the ever burgeoning national debt of P4.221 trillion in 2008, our being the sick man in Asia, our being a nation of maids?  Of course, some observe that the causes of our misery are greed, corruption, poverty, profligacy, thievery, lack of job opportunities, wanton extravagance, insensitivity to the needs of the poor, etc.  Others would argue that western imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and semi-feudalism have brought us to this quagmire.  But all this takes the symptom for the disease.  For the root of our misery lies in a higher plane; it consists in the dearth of ethical foundation and vision in those who exercise governance.  One cannot therefore overemphasize the need for leaders who adhere to foundational principles that guide their policies and actions.

Four Fundamental Principles

            Which principles?  For a Christian leader, of course, the primordial principle is Jesus himself, his life and teachings. Since, however, the world today is far removed from the New Testament times, and the problems raised are obviously far different from those that Jesus faced, one must make an effort to relate the Gospel of Jesus to the problems and the situation in our time.  And the Church has done (and is doing) just that.  In our era, for instance, the Popes, in trying to apply the Gospel to the pressing issues of the day, issued various encyclicals that analyze the problems, determine the causes and suggest solutions.  Best known of these papal writings are Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and Pacem in terris, Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, and John Paul II’s Laborem exercens, Solicitudo rei socialis, and Centesimus annus.

            As one runs through these documents, one notices not only that there is a growth and development in the understanding of problems, their causes and their solutions, but also that there is an increase in the number of principles that have to be taken into account, reflecting, no doubt, the ever increasing complexity of world realities.  Considering that one does not have the time to read through all of them, and the enormity of the principles enunciated there, the question may be asked: are there any fundamental principles from which the many other principles one encounters in the encyclicals ramify?  It may be recalled that when Jesus was asked about the great commandment that incorporates all the 615 commandments in the law of Moses, he adverted to the injunction on loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  The same may be observed in the case of principles on societal realities.  Though various have been the attempts to spell out the fundamental moral principles in social doctrine, the newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lists only four:  (1) primacy and dignity of the human person; (2) common good; (3) solidarity, and (4) subsidiarity.

            In what follows, I would like to relate these principles to the Philippine society in order to help the Christian leader engaged in the present issues toward its transformation.  This is not, of course, to say that these are valid only for Christian leaders.  Quite the contrary, they are not only permanent and universal; they are also primary and fundamental parameters of reference to interpret and evaluate social realities.  Even unbelievers can apply them, because they speak to all people and to all nations.  And their implications, it will be noted, are far-reaching.  What is important is that, one really seeks the truth about man and society, and it will be seen that the four are interconnected and complement each other. He cannot use any of them disjoined to the rest, unless he, to be sure, does it with a bad conscience.

The Primacy and Dignity of the Human Person

            If the Philippine society is really to be orderly and humanely developed, it must be founded on a correct understanding of the human being. According to the Compendium, “the human person must always be understood in his unrepeatable and inviolable uniqueness” (131).  A center of consciousness and freedom, he is open to the infinite and to other created beings.  Unique though he is, with a dignity higher than any other creature, the human being is not sufficient unto himself.  He not only needs God on whom his life depends; he also needs others in order to realize himself.  As Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, stresses, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person, which for its part and by its very nature stands completely in need of social life” (25).

            There are several points to be noted.  First off, because of his transcendental dignity, the human person cannot be subordinated to wealth, progress, means of production, institutions, and minerals.  He cannot be used to advance any of these.  Quite the contrary, all of them are ordained to his perfection.  Hence, it is morally objectionable, for example, to encourage prostitutes to promote tourism, to suppress the right of workers for business to earn more, to allow people to work in subhuman conditions in mining to increase profits.  Since they exist in order for the human person to realize himself, rights and duties directly and simultaneously flow from his very nature, rights which are universal, inviolable and inalienable.  The logic is simple.  If man is destined to perfection, he should have all the rights that are necessary to achieve that perfection.  This is the reason for being of the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the United Nations and the list of human rights in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris.

            Against this background, it would be hard, therefore, to imagine a Philippine leader training his sight on development, but at the same time trampling on the rights of his constituents, or depriving them of their rights.  How can one claim strong leadership without addressing the people’s right to life, bodily integrity and the means necessary and suitable for the proper development of life?  Just look at the quality of the ordinary people’s access to food, shelter, medical care, social services, security in sickness and old age, care for the handicapped and mentally ill and unemployment!  Can it really be called human?  Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearance cannot be justified in the name of state security.  The use of vote-buying, dagdag-bawas, fraud and violence is flagrant denial of the people’s free will in electoral process.

            In addition, since each man has a human dignity, which should be respected, all persons are fundamentally equal before God and before humanity, irrespective of their race and color, nationality, economic status, sexual orientation, or achievement in life.  The President of the Philippines does not have more human dignity that the pedicab driver in Isla Puting Bato.  Human dignity does not reside in the economic power, political position, gender, social status of the individual.  No one is superior to his fellow men.  That dignity lies in his being an image of God, in his being a child of God, and in his eternal destiny.  What people acquire, amass or achieve in life has nothing to do with it.  True development cannot therefore allow a compartmentalized form of justice—one for the rich and the powerful and another for the poor.

            However, it should be emphasized that the primacy of the human person must not be seen as a promotion of individualism, for inherent in the concept of the human person is the notion of social relationship.  Man is a social being, who “recognizes the necessity of integrating himself in cooperation with his fellow human beings, and who is capable of communion with them on the level of knowledge and love” (Compendium, 149). Lest this be interpreted as an affirmation of collectivism, the Compendium equally emphasizes that the human person cannot “be thought of as a mere cell of an organism that is inclined at most to grant it recognition in its functional role within the overall system” (125).  “By the very force of their nature and by their internal destiny,” individuals are united into an “organic, harmonious mutual relationship” (125).

            This relational dimension of the human person, however, has to be understood as a corrective to the overemphasis on the primacy of the individual.  The realization of man’s human dignity is always in the context of the community. “Together with equality in the recognition of the dignity of each person and of every people there must also be an awareness that it will be possible to safeguard and promote human dignity only if this is done as a community, by the whole humanity” (145).  One cannot therefore merely regard the human person as an independent being, separate from others.  Consequently, if a leader wishes to promote human dignity among Filipinos, it cannot therefore be just the work of a few; it would take the collective effort of both rich and poor, a work that would entail the elimination of the gross disparity and inequality between them.

The Common Good

            Which brings us to the second principle—the common good.  For, if individual human persons have to group themselves, its reason for being is the achievement of their collective welfare.  As individuals, they lack what is necessary for the enjoyment of social life; common good is needed to advance their human dignity.  Gaudium et spes defines it as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (n 26).  Those conditions ran the gamut from goods and services to values that are actualized in the members of the community, enabling them to perfect their lives.  Thus, in placing itself at the service of each human person, society has no other purpose than the common good.

            The achievement of the common good is not only the work of the individual members.  Since it is the reason for its existence, the state has the responsibility of attaining it; it must make available to persons the material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods in order for them to live a truly human life.  Because each one has a right to enjoy the conditions of social life brought about by the quest for the common good, the challenge for a Filipino leader who seeks to transform Philippine society is gargantuan.  A formidable obstacle to the attainment of the common good is the huge disparity between the oligarchs who are few and the proletariat members who belong to the great majority.  Naturally, the rich control the state apparatus, the economy, the mass media and the exercise of politics.  In such a society, it is difficult to speak of common good, for there is no equality, and the comfortable social conditions in which the rich live are not shared by the many that are deprived of the basic necessities.   One may not be mistaken to say that the privileged do not care for the common good—except the good that coincides with theirs; for the most part, all they are interested in are power and the privileges that go with it, even if these hurt the poor.

          It is also in the light of the common good that leaders must re-examine our international debt.  As John Paul points out in his Centesimus annus, “the principle that debts must be paid is certainly just.  However, it is not right to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples.  It cannot be expected that the debts which have been contracted should be paid at the price of unbearable sacrifices.  In such cases, it is necessary to find—as in fact is partly happening—ways to lighten, defer or even cancel the debt, compatible with the fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress” (39).  In the Philippines , for instance, not enough money is poured to health, education, and other basic necessities because what is intended for them are coughed up for debt repayment.  Indeed, the nature of this debt is such that the borrower becomes all the poorer rather than richer, linked as it is with oppressive conditions, not to mention the fact that a portion of it gets to the pockets of the elite.  One might as well ask Monsod if Shylock should get his pound of flesh!

Universal Destination of Goods

          This makes a mockery of the principle that naturally flows from the principle of common good—the universal destination of goods.  According to this principle, “God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people.  Thus, as all men follow justice and unite in charity, created goods should abound for them on a reasonable basis” (GS 69).  What we see in the Philippines is a pathetic distribution of goods.  Some provinces, for instance, have the best infrastructures, but others, especially those removed from the political center, wallow in the primitive. Mining has not enriched the Samar provinces and the poor; the profits went elsewhere. Globalization is embraced by those who control the economy, but has not improved the lives of the dispossessed.  Laws on land reform are enacted, but they are not really catered to the benefit of tenants and farmers.

          Indeed, despite all the press releases and fanfare attendant upon poverty alleviation program, the properties of the propertied remain intact.  That nothing is new under the sun as regards efforts to close the gap between the rich and poor finds its telling evidence in the slum problems in Metro Manila and other cities.  One can always ask what is being done by our leaders to correct the lopsided relationship in an  economic structure that more often than not favors the moneyed. This has to be asked because “the universal destination of goods entails obligations on how goods are to be used by their legitimate owners. Individual persons may not use their resources without considering the effects that this use will have; rather they must act in a way that benefits not only themselves and their families, but also the common good” (Compendium, 178).

          Clearly, then, the right to private property is not absolute.  Indeed, Christian tradition has never recognized that right as untouchable.  According to John Paul II, in Laborem excercens, this tradition has “always understood the right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole creation; the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone” (84).  But will the rich part with their riches?  One might be asking for the moon.  But it is well to remind them of the words of St Ambrose in De Nabuthe that Paul VI quotes in Populorum progressio: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person.  You are handing over to him what is his.  For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself.  The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”

          In view of this, one wonders whether those in governance would be willing to extirpate greed and sever themselves from their wealth, instead of trying to accumulate more of it.   Truth is, even public office is treated as private property—politicians perpetuate themselves in office through dynasty, as if they had the exclusive claim to it.  Today, it is often told that the country needs leaders who can be trusted.  Of course, that is correct.  Filipinos hardly need a leader who is a liar, profligate, wanton, greedy, violator of human rights, self-serving, ambitious, tyrannical, and overweening.  The nation looks for a leader who could talk about “an economic vision inspired by moral values that permit people not to lose sight of the origin or purpose of goods so as to bring about a world of fairness and solidarity (Compendium, 174).”  And of course he can walk the talk.  Since he himself is part of the oligarchy, he should be able to make his own life a showcase of how a politician can contribute to the common good.  He can do this not by siding with the landed gentry and the aristocracy, but by opting for the poor and the oppressed

Preferential Option for the Poor

          The reason for this is that the principle of preferential option for the poor logically flows from the principle of the universal destination of goods. In the words of the Compendium, “The principle of the universal distribution of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.  To this end, the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force (192).”   For John Paul II, in his Sollicitudo rei socialis, this option is a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity… It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seek to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods” (42).

          In this country where the majority wallow in misery and only a few enjoy so much wealth, common sense dictates that in the distribution of goods, the needy, the hungry, the homeless, those without medical care, the aged, the neglected and the hopeless should have preference, if all are created equal.  Yet, is there any aspiring national leader whose platform will make this principle real in everyday life?  Someone, of course, ran on the program for the mahirap, but when he abruptly ended his term, the poor were more numerous than ever.  The promise that relatives and friends would have no place in his dispensation was just that—a promise, for his bank accounts never showed that the hopeless were his beneficiaries.

          Truth is, the principle of the universal destination of common good and that of the preferential option for the poor can be translated into realities only if they are matched by a recognition of the participation of all at the level of political decision.  As things stand, it remains a figment of the imagination, for who makes political decisions?  The challenge of future leaders could be daunting.  Is there any presidentiable who is capable of betraying the interest of his social class?  The executive and legislative branches of the government are occupied largely by the rich and by those who in politics became rich, and one wonders whether they are prepared to give up their privileges.  If the history of land reform law has anything to tell us, it is that the privileged class is not yet ready to give up its advantages to really lift the poor from wretchedness. Indeed, there is no evidence that the lot of the poor has improved since the birth of the Philippine republic.  Since those elected eventually become part of the privileged class, one hardly expects that what will be distributed to the poor really go beyond noodles, can goods, rice and PhilHealth cards.


           Yet, come to think of it—if the common good has a universal destiny, it is because no man can ever claim to own anything as his own; humans are only stewards of creation.  The principle of stewardship derives from the understanding that God is the source of all creation, and whatever man has is simply God’s gift not for himself but for the benefit of all.  In his World Day of Peace Message in 1990, John Paul II asserts that “the earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruit of which are for the benefit of all.  In the words of the Second Vatican Council, ’God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples’ (GS 69).  This has direct consequences for the problem at hand.  It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.  Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness—both individual and collective—are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.”

          Can a political leader curb the greed and selfishness of the privileged class?  Greed and craving for huge profit left in their wake the destruction of natural resources—forest denudation, floods, destruction of crops and aquatic animals, plunder of mines and death of rivers, obliteration of corals and mangroves, to mention a few of their evil effects.  Today, people are reaping the whirlwind, but although the problem has affected almost every one, especially now that climate has changed a lot, the victims remain those who are in the underside of history.  But one cannot take up the cause of the poor without antagonizing those who make fantastic profits in the destruction of environment. One wonders whether a leader could still pursue a program of total development, given the oppositions he has to hurdle.


          There is no formula for a political will that does not antagonize the beneficiaries of a lopsided system of distribution of goods, but any attempt would have to presuppose a change of vision of humanity.  Such a vision would certain include the principle of solidarity, because this stands in opposition to all that greed and selfishness imply.  If social evil arises because a good number are lusting for power and greedy for wealth, and love to work only for their selfish ends, solidarity signifies the contrary—the offering of one’s self for the common good.  Solidarity, in the words of John Paul II in Sollicitudo rei socialis, is “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortune of so many people, both near and far.  On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, to the good of all and each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (38).

          The principle of solidarity highlights interdependence as intrinsic to the social nature of man. “It is above all a question of interdependence sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category.  When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a virtue, is solidarity” (SRS 38).  Solidarity then obliges those who are well-off to share their goods and services with the unfortunate.  At the same time, it urges them to correct injustices done to the poor, especially those that arise from the consuming desire for profit and thirst for power, like extending one’s tenure of office by advocating charter change.  It this way, they are able to lose part of their possessions and become committed to the common good.

          But the poor cannot just wait for the rich to be committed to their obligation under the principle of interdependence; it is important that the victims of history express their solidarity with one another, if society is to be transformed.  As John Paul II asserts in Laborens exercens, “in order to achieve social justice…, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers.  This solidarity must be present whenever it is called by the social degradation of the subject of work, by exploitation of workers, and by the growing areas of poverty and hunger.  The Church is firmly committed to the cause, for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ so that she can truly be the Church of the poor” (37). 

To uplift the poor from misery, a Filipino leader cannot just therefore express interdependence through distribution of rice and noodles in times of calamities.  More has to be done, including setting up draconian measures to correct the continuing degradation of the poor.  Far from depending merely on the oligarchy to dispense crumbs, he must encourage small communities, organizations, employees and workers to unite themselves.  Considering the opposition that this step might create, since he would be making enemies of those well-placed in position of power and privilege, he would need the help of other institutions, like the Church.  If the Church in the Philippines is really a church of the poor, it would have to opt in favor of workers, peasants, fisher folk and the marginalized, in their effort to liberate themselves from injustices.


That small groups should make initiatives that could help them achieve their own perfection brings us to the last fundamental principle of Catholic Social Doctrine—subsidiarity.  This principle stipulates that the society, the government, and other bigger institutions, rather than take advantage of, or oppress the smaller ones, should be helpful to them, especially the ultimate members: the individual.  Far from absorbing them or colonizing them, they should enhance their proper activity.  Pius XI, in his Quadragesimo anno, expresses the principle as follows: “Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private initiative and endeavor can accomplish, so it is likewise an injustice, a serious harm, and a disturbance of proper order to turn over to a greater society, of higher rank, functions and services which can be performed by smaller communities on a lower plane” (79).  If the principle of solidarity is opposed to all forms of political or social individualism, that of subsidiarity stands in opposition against all forms of collectivism.

Like the previous principles, this one is based on the dignity of the individual.  All forms of society, whether big or small, are meant to help him.  And because man is a social being, smaller societies, like the family, local association, small groups and the like, are the locus in which the individual human person exercises that social dimension of his existence and relate him to the bigger society.  This bigger society has the obligation to create conditions in which the individual can grow and develop his potentials, and reach perfection.  Consequently, what can be done at the level of the small group should remain there, and not absorbed or taken over by the larger one.  Its competence is to be respected. 

The larger community can take over its role only if it cannot be realized at the local level; but if it can be done, the State, for instance, cannot substitute itself in its stead in terms of responsibility and initiative.  In other words, the performance of an action is best done at the lowest possible level.  The same may be said of its responses to local problems.  Problems in smaller groups are to be met at that level, and the government can intervene only when the solutions are beyond the capacity of that level.  There is, thus, no justification for the government to dictate families as to how many children they should have; that is the sphere of husband and wife.  Nor can it prescribe what forms of contraception couples should accept, for that is the competence of married people who decide in the light of their religious belief.

The implication here is that individuals and smaller communities are empowered to get involved in the realization of their life and mission.  They take the reign of their own history.  According to the Compendium, participation is expressed in activities through which the citizen contributes to the cultural, social, economic and political life of the community to which he belongs; it is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good (189).  By participating, the individual becomes active in ordering his life, and is also able to help other individuals in the community, especially those in dire need.  The obligation to be at the service of others is concretized by this principle.  

In terms of governance, the principle of subsidiary obviously implies political reforms whereby the influence of the national government is reduced in order to promote local autonomy.  The Constitution of 1987 has already provided some form of autonomy to the Muslims and to the indigenous peoples.  In 1991, the local government code enacted reforms for greater accountability and transparency.  But one wonders whether these are enough.  On the other hand, how would the people be protected from local governance where people are colonized by their own local officials?  The individuals at the local level still do not participate, and because those in governance somehow substituted only the role of those at the national level, social conditions are never created in which individuals grow and realize their potential.

But an even greater challenge is to transform the political system into such that the local government becomes self-sufficient and not merely depends on the internal revenue allotment for its survival.  But this problem is rooted in the feudal system that characterizes the relationship between the national and the local levels.  Under this system, the master-servant relationship where loyalty, subservience and dependency appear as virtues, is itself paralleled in the local level, in terms of the relationship between local politicians and clients, exacerbating the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the pauperization of the disenfranchised.   Of no less importance, a structural reform has to be instituted in such a way that the poor can have a share in the powers of the government, if their participation in governance is not to remain in theory; that way, they can participate, for instance, in the decisions on the allocation of funds.  With their participation, they can see to it that money really goes to where it is needed, not ending up in the pockets of the elite that now control the set-up.

Final Word

TAKING ALL THESE principles into account, one gets the impression that the nation has still a long way to go, if it is really to achieve integral liberation and development.  Those entrusted with governance have to understand that these principles are sine qua non for real development, and they have to be taken as principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and directives for action, if they are really intent on uplifting the majority of the people from misery.  But then, it would take much sacrifice for them and for those holding power and enjoying privilege.  Political will would not be enough; leaders would have to be willing and ready to lose power and privilege for the sake of the many in the process of transforming the Philippine society.  Still, the question remains: will they be ready to lose them?  If our history of politics has anything to tell us, it is that politicians scarcely care for any of these principles, for their objective is not much more than the capture of power and the enjoyment of its privileges, no matter if these harm the deprived.  The challenge for leaders today and tomorrow is to break with that history.*

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