Why so much wealth?

It has not been a good month for the Catholic Church in the Philippines.  We were still mourning the deaths of three of our priests when our teaching on creation was dismissed as “stupid” by no less than the President.  Soon after, there followed a flurry of impassioned, sometimes acrimonious exchanges for and against the Church. Then, there were the revived charges of pedophilia, and finally the accusation that the Church has, all this time, been amassing immense riches.  It did not help that when Cardinal Chito Tagle was interviewed by a foreign correspondent, the every-ready gossip machine in social media  picked up bits of the exchange with the clear albeit unarticulated purpose of embarrassing the Church even more.  What did the “jeer-leaders” get wrong, and where did we, the Catholic leaders in the Philippines, go wrong?

Cardinal Chito was right, but the interviewer was not listening, and neither were many who read reports of the interview later.  He started by saying that he had not been Archbishop of Manila for a long time.  That was no cop out.  He was in effect saying that much of the wealth of the Church is the result of centuries of its existence.  Pious Filipinos, for the longest time now, have bequeathed treasures to the Church.  Many donations have been astoundingly generous. There were, to be sure, instances during the Spanish regime, of confiscatory acquisitions by religious corporations—not really “by them,” but on their behalf by the theocratic state.  But it would be most unjust to the memory of several generations of both insulares and Filipino natives to dismiss all that has been bestowed on the Church as “ill-gotten.”  The Archdiocese of Tuguegarao  of which I am a priest is a good example.  It had as bishop, several years ago, a Dutchman who had inherited a fortune and who passed on that fortune to the nascent diocese.  With that amount, the diocese acquired real estate (the entire expanse on which the SVDs have put up Christ the King Seminary till the St. Joseph College compound in Quezon City) and shares of stock in various corporations. Where was the greed and avarice in this?  This same bishop, Constance Jurgens, sold his pectoral cross at the time the war broke out to put food on the seminarians’ tables.  When a pious Catholic offers her earthly goods to the Church before departing for the hereafter, what is the Church to do?  To refuse it would be silly especially when the Church has some good use for it.

And what these good uses might be are myriad.  Building churches and maintaining them, building rectories for priests and providing for their needs  call for hefty sums, for just as surely as man does not live by bread alone is it sure that he needs bread also and medicines too!  The clergy of the Catholic Church are assigned to parishes, and while the generosity of parishioners will sometimes be sufficient to keep the priest alive, sometimes prosperous even, many parishes are not so able.  And then the wherewithal of maintaining impoverished parishes must be sought elsewhere.  There is the all-important task of catechism, for while our Constitution wise allows for the possibility of religious instruction in public schools, it as clearly disallows the expenditure of public funds for this purpose.  But if catechists are to be sent, and catechetical literature made available, certainly, the goodwill of volunteers will not be enough—and the just demand for salaries and benefits must be met.  It is no less true of those universities in the Philippines that have made it to the roster excellence.  True, most of them are owned and managed by Catholic corporations, and most of them charge astronomical fees.  But how do you recruit quality professors, fund quality researches, establish quality laboratories, stock libraries with quality material when government does not finance private tertiary education?  Quality has its costs.  Doubtlessly, these top-notch schools cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that in the scheme of things—as the Church lays it down—they are instruments of the Church, agents of the Church’s mission.  Regrettably, this does not always manifest itself all too clearly.

But what the Church uses the wealth it has for is precisely what it cannot talk about and should refrain from doing so.  In this regard, the Gospel cannot be any clearer: Not even the left hand is to know what the right hand is doing.  And when it must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, relieve the distress of the ill, grant succor to the needy and comfort to the dying, it cannot blow horns on street-corners to make known the fulfillment of an act of charity—for then it would cease to be charity.  Politicians are known to ensure that photographers are part of the entourage when they go on their “mercy missions.”  But advertised mercy is no less disgusting than pornography! 

Then there are Catholic school—and when these are mentioned, do not let the splendor of Ateneo, De La Salle, University of Asia and the Pacific, or even the University of Santo Tomas and San Beda University allow the hard fact to be dimmed that most Catholic schools can hardly keep their noses above the floodwaters of costs, the gross disproportion between expenses and income. Once more, the Archdiocesan schools of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao should be a good example with which I am familiar.  Some can hardly muster student populations beyond 300 for all six years of junior and senior high school.  And because government has only miserly subsidies for our schools, how do you pay salaries of teachers (already recruiting them in the face of the generous offers of public high schools is a gut-wrenching issue!), meet the ever-increasing demands of regulatory agencies and cope with the expectations of clientele and community?

Why the shares?  When all you do is deposit donations, and alms, and gifts, and legacies, then it takes no rocket-science to understand that that is no sustainable modus operandi at all. In the past, our bishops were lured into investing in shares to ensure the sustainability of diocesan obligations, commitments and initiatives.  Why so much wealth—the interviewer asked in feigned surprise?  Really, that was a stupid question because the answer is so obvious: When there is so much to be done, then you need so much to go by! The Lord of the Parable of the Talents lauded his enterprising stewards not for their ability to produce something out of nothing, but to do much with what was given them.  What should correctly be asked of the Church is what it has done with the much that it has!

And this brings me to what we have not done well.  Beautiful churches have always been a means of proclaiming the magnificence of God, so the faithful contribute to the building of worthy houses of worship.  But beauty and worthiness are one thing, ostentation and opulence are another.  And sometimes, we in the Philippine Church have not too carefully marked the boundary between the two—so easily crossing over into the despicable other! Pope Francis also sent a clear message when he sacked a German prelate who enjoyed being trapped in a time warp and insisted on dwelling in a palace.  Huge rectories, or clergy (a.k.a. retreat) houses appointed like five-star hotels are unpardonably scandalous, as are brand-new top-of-the-line vehicles driven by Jesus’ appointed shepherds in Roman collars supposedly on their way to their appointments with the poor and the marginalized!

Plenty of the criticism and the diatribe is unfair, the bitter fruit of ignorance of what the Church is and what it does.  But we in the Church have much to learn as well, and it should be ironically comforting that we matter enough to Philippine society that our critics take the time to call us out—and where we can learn, we must learn!

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Topics: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino , Catholic Church in the Philippines
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