I have believed that Filipinos who have made outstanding contributions to the progress of their country and the welfare of their countrymen should be recognized and honored during their lifetimes, and I have long disfavored the practice of rewarding such Filipinos in posthumous fashion. An outstanding citizen of this country should, in my view, be afforded an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his life’s efforts while he is still on the ground, not six feet below it.
It is with this belief in mind that I decided to devote this column to Fr. Joaquin Bernas of the Society of Jesus. Fr. Bernas, former head of the Philippine province of the Jesuit order and president emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila University Law School, is very much alive and kicking, though feeling the effects of incipient old age. At the rate that he is going, Fr. Bernas may well outlive us all.
He has his critics and naysayers, but it is probably correct to say that most Filipinos regard Joaquin G. Bernas as an icon. It is in the field of law—more specifically, the law of the Constitution—that Fr. Bernas has made his iconic contribution to Philippine society. Today, when the topic under discussion is constitutional law, the name Joaquin G. Bernas immediately comes to mind.
The young man from Goa, Camarines Sur who rose to become head of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines is one of a handful of members of the Society who are lawyers. A member of the Ateneo Law School class of 1962, Joaquin G. Bernas is clearly the pre-eminent member of that special group of Philippine Jesuits.
Fr. Bernas’s contribution to the development of Philippine law has come in two areas, constitutional interpretation and legal education. He has devoted as much devotion to the first as to the second. As two-term president—the two terms were not consecutive—of the Ateneo Law School—Fr. Bernas sought to make ALS the leading law school in the nation and to produce a succession of lawyers who would personify St. Ignatius of Loyola’s concept of “(men) for others.” Without being a terror-dispensing professor, Fr. Bernas sought to make his students develop a healthy respect for the law, especially the Constitution.
Everything that Joaquin G. Bernas feels and knows about constitutional law is contained in his masterful “Commentary and Cases on the 1973 Constitution.” It is a constitutional law text recommended to and used not only by ALS students but by students of other law schools as well.
The recurring theme of Fr. Bernas’s book is the need for vigilance by the citizenry against violations, actual and perceptible, of the Basic Law by the political departments of the government as well as the judiciary. Although he is a member of the Bar, Fr. Bernas has not, in his book, spared the judiciary from censure for its occasional intrusion into areas reserved by the Constitution to the Executive Department and the legislature. In his long-running column in a major newspaper, Joaquin G. Bernas railed against—and received much credit for—instances of overreach on the part of various elements of the government of this country.
This brings me back to the opening lines of this column. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J. has made an enormous contribution to the progress of this country and the welfare and wellbeing of the Filipino people. Let us tell him so and give him the appropriate awards, while he is still able to savor them.
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