Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Posts Tagged ‘church’

Blasphemy?

Posted by butalidnl on 10 August 2011

There has been a lot of controversy about the art exhibit called Poleteismo by artist Mideo Cruz at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Cruz says that the exhibit is about “how religion has been commodified and how capitalist commerce has become the new religion”.  But many Catholics did not pay too much attention to the overall message of the exhibit, but to the penis on the cross.  The exhibit also showed Jesus with a clown’s nose and Mickey Mouse ears. They said that this was blasphemous – I wonder which shocked them more, the penis on the cross, or Jesus with a clown’s nose? . After all the furor, the board of the CCP decided to ‘temporarily’ close the exhibit.

I fully understand that some people found Poleteismo distasteful or ugly. After all, if I was an art collector, I probably wouldn’t want to buy such works of art – they are not to my taste, to say the least. But to ban it, or to persecute the CCP for exhibiting it, is way too much, an arrogant abuse of power.

But it seems that undue political pressure had been put on the CCP board to discontinue the exhibit. President PNoy Aquino for one, called the board to tell them that he disapproved of the exhibit. Then there were senators calling for cutting the budget for the CCP over this incident. I think the politicians have gone too far. They go even further than the official censors (i.e. those who censor motion pictures). At least the motion picture censors have the excuse that some movie scenes are a bad influence on children, thus explicit sex or graphic violence is not allowed by them. But in the CCP case, the censorship was not really a question of public morals, but rather ‘blasphemy’.

Blasphemy
Blasphemy is defined as “irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs”. It is an ancient offense, which brings to our mind an ancient scene of a man stoned because he said that the Bible was not literally true, or the miracles are fake. Blasphemy is always the charge against people with a different view of religion.

In modern times, blasphemy is illustrated more by the uproar  against the Danish newspaper which published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Danish embassies were burned, Danish products were boycotted, and there were terrorist plans to kill people connected to the newspaper (luckily, the police were able to stop these).

There is also the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan, which is a law that persecutes Christians there. If a Christian has a conflict with a Muslim, the Muslim could simply claim that the Christian said something bad against Muslims, and then the Christian gets sentenced to death. Politicians in Pakistan who spoke out against this law have been assassinated.

I think the basis of blasphemy as a reason to ban, to suppress, or to kill somebody should be left in the Dark Ages. Citing blasphemy in the present-day Philippines only underscores our being a feudal and backward country.

Freedom of Expression
The suppression of ‘blasphemous’ art such as Poleteismo is a dark day for freedom in the Philippines. Freedom of expression boils down to the freedom to express contrary views. If people only had the ‘freedom to express’ things that are approved by the authorities, then it is not freedom at all. Even in a dictatorship, there is always the freedom to express pro-government opinions or views.

The question of whether the CCP, being government supported, should promote such ‘blasphemous’ art should be answered in the affirmative. The government should be the guarantor of the freedom of expression, instead of acting as a censor.

The country has everything to gain by protecting the freedom of expression – it would unleash the creativity of our artists, writers, movie makers, etc. The creative spirit could help Philippine economic development. The creative spirit is not nurtured by succumbing to the disapproval by church elders or the wife of our former dictator.

If you go around European art musea, you will notice that there was a long period where the only art was religious art or portraits – things that are absolutely non-controversial and non-blasphemous. Art then was extremely boring, and not beautiful. Then, there came the time when art took on other topics, many of which were scandalous. Some of these ‘scandalous’ art (e.g. nudes) was even beautiful, but the important thing was that a lot of other art got made, which would not have been the case if the tight censorship by the church had continued to prevail.

So, the question is: Do we want the Philippines to progress and be open to new ideas, or do we want it to remain a backward, feudal country?

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Tax the Church?

Posted by butalidnl on 9 July 2011

There are periodic calls for the government to tax the church. And the church would reply that the government can’t tax it, because their tax-exempt status is guaranteed in the Constitution and the Internal Revenue Code. If we look at the Constitution and actual practice, however, the case is not so simple. The Church is not as tax exempt as they make themselves out to be. They actually pay a lot of taxes: dividends tax,  employee contributions, VAT. But at the same time, there is a lot in terms of property and business taxes that the church should pay, but doesn’t.

Real Estate Tax Exemption
The constitution mentions church tax exemption in Article 6, Section 28(2):
“Charitable institutions, churches and personages or convents appurtenant thereto, mosques, non-profit cemeteries, and all land, buildings, and improvements, actually, directly, and exclusively used for religious, charitable, or educational purposes shall be exempt for taxation.”

Thus, it is clear: church buildings are exempt from real estate tax. Note that this doesn’t refer to “the church” as an institution, or its constituent dioceses, parishes and congregations, which are entities that are much more than mere buildings. If we go by the above provision, other church property should be taxed if they are not ‘exclusively’ used for religious purposes. Convents, for example, are subject to property tax. School buildings with a dual purpose – as residence for priests/nuns and as school, since this is no longer ‘exclusive use’ should also be taxed.

The presence of a chapel in a convent does not make the convent a religious building; it is just an ordinary residence with a chapel. It is similar to a chapel in a mall – the mall remains a commercial building.

Schools and Hospitals
There is a constitutional provision covering non-stock, non-profit schools. This is found in Article 14, Section 4.
“(3) All revenues and assets of non-stock, non-profit educational institutions used actually, directly, or exclusively for educational purposes shall be exempt from tax and duties…”

“(4) Subject to conditions prescribed by laws all grants, endowments, donations or contributions used actually, directly and exclusively for educational purposes shall be exempt from tax.”

Under this provision, all income raised by a non-stock, non-profit school should be used for educational purposes. Withdrawals from school funds for use by congregations should be prohibited. If they did this, the school should be stripped of its tax free status; or the congregation should be charged with (technical) theft of the school’s assets.

You would then say: “the school could simply pay the nuns/religious who have school-related functions, and they could donate this to their congregation. True. Actually, this is what they should do. But the salaries of these nuns/religious should be comparable that of to the other teachers or administrative staff in the school. Paying them higher salaries would constitute a ‘withdrawal’ of profits by the congregation, which should not be allowed for a non-profit, non-stock educational institution.

Note that ‘non-profit, non-stock’ covers also schools that are run by private foundations. It would not be right for the head of the foundation running a school to build his residence on school premises, and then get paid a very high salary. So, why should a church congregation be any different?

Then, there is the case of hospitals. Are hospitals included in the term ‘charitable institution’?   For me, charitable institutions would include orphanages, battered women shelters and the like; but hospitals are at best a border line case. There should be clear guidelines made by the Department of Finance to define when a hospital can be classified as a charitable institution. Perhaps it should require that the majority of its patients are poor and that they pay below market-based hospital fees.

It should not be the case that any religious group could simply put up a hospital, run it in a regular manner, collect high fees from patients, and then claim to be a ‘charitable institution’ exempt from real estate and income taxes.

Political Clout
But in the Philippines today, church run institutions often get away with not paying taxes. Mostly, this is due to the church’s political clout; most politicians are afraid of going after the church for back taxes. And there is also the bias in favor of the church by judges. In a recent case filed by the Cebu City government against Perpetual Succour Hospital (run by religious nuns), the city wanted to collect taxes on the pharmacy and real estate leasing operations done by the hospital, because these are not covered by the tax exempt status of the hospital. But the Regional Trial Court ruled that the accounts for these activities are not separate from that of the hospital, and thus no tax could be collected. Actually, if we were to follow the Constitution, it should be the other way around: since the hospital is no longer exclusively used for ‘charitable purposes’, it should be taxed as a whole.

The government, through the Department of Finance,  could and should implement the law when it comes to the income and assets of religious institutions.  The church should not be allowed a creative  interpretation of the tax laws to make themselves tax-exempt. This is especially so when they operate as non-profit and non-stock institutions. There may be some laws that need to be amended, but mostly it is just a question of political will. If the Department of Finance decides to go after the church for back taxes, they will have the Constitution and most of the laws on their side.

I believe it is high time that the government fully collect the taxes due from dioceses, congregations and the like. We should not continue with the myth that the church as a whole is tax exempt. This is effectively tax evasion by the church, and in the present framework of pushing for full tax compliance by everyone, the church should not be an exception. Otherwise, that will be the same as condoning corruption (in this case, tax evasion), and we don’t want that to happen. Or do we?

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For CBCP, sex education or abortion?

Posted by butalidnl on 8 June 2011

(This post was published in BusinessWorld on  5 June 2011, as an opinion column. )

The Catholics Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) objects to sex education because they say that it encourages promiscuity. In other words, if teenagers don’t have sex education, they won’t engage in sex before marriage.

In this era of speedy communication, mass media and Internet, it is naive to think that we can “shelter” teenagers from sexual knowledge by not teaching it at school. As things are, teenagers will learn about sex from the mass media, Internet, or peers — and this information is often incomplete and incorrect. It is better to teach teenagers about sexuality in schools to ensure that the information that they get is more balanced and complete.

The argument that sex education is mainly the parents’ task is also wrong. In the first place, parents find it quite awkward to teach their children about sex. And there is the question of what they will teach them. There would need to be sex education courses for parents for this to work. I think that parents have a role in sex education, but this will be secondary to the role of schools.

I believe that an information campaign on human sexuality for adults would also need to be undertaken, as part of the sex education campaign, since there are so many married adults who know too little about sexuality, especially on how to prevent pregnancies.

The CBCP says that the government proposal for sex education is more about the technical aspects of sexual behavior. They want sex education to teach “values” instead. They would rather have something similar to the US “abstinence-based” sex education program — which teaches about the ideal of abstinence before marriage, and which does NOT teach about how to avoid pregnancy in case you don’t abstain.

The US abstinence-based sex education and movements like “Say No to Sex” and “True Love Waits” and abstinence pledges simply don’t work. They may have the short-term effect of delaying the age of first sexual encounter, but when these teenagers do have sex, they won’t know how to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Studies show that their sexual behavior is the same as that of teenagers who have not had sex education. The US government poured $15 billion in the last 10 years to promote abstinence-based sex education; and as a result, the US has the highest rate among developed countries of teen pregnancies and abortions (combined rate is 86 per 1,000 teens), which is up to four times the rate of other countries.

It is all quite logical. If people are taught about sexuality, including how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, there will be less unplanned pregnancies, and consequently, there will be less need for abortion.

Estimates of illegal abortion in the Philippines vary from 400,000 to 550,000 per year. And 1,000 women die every year while having abortions. Compare this with the Netherlands’ abortion rate (note that abortions are legal in the Netherlands) of 28,000 per year. If we correct for population size (and taking the figure of 400,000 Philippine abortions/year), the Netherlands’ figure is about 1/3 that of the Philippines. Comprehensive sex education is given in the Netherlands, and not in the Philippines.

If the Philippines had a comprehensive sex education program (but retains the abortion ban), there could be up to 270,000 less abortions, and that the number of deaths will drop to 330 from the present 1,000.

The Dutch system also teaches “values” together with the technical aspects of sex education. They promote the value of love and commitment in relationships, that teenagers who become mothers are ruining their lives, and that children should grow up in loving families. The Dutch have one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies in the world, and have low rates for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

The question then comes: if the CBCP is really against abortions, they would be well-advised to promote comprehensive sex education. It would radically reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and thus the number of abortions. If the CBCP is against comprehensive sex education, then they have to accept that this would result in more abortions, and more deaths of mothers during those abortions. There is no middle ground, the church needs to choose.

I suggest that they agree to a program of comprehensive sex education. This way, they would indeed be decreasing the number of abortions. And if this is not being “pro-life,” what is?

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Church Should Focus on Corruption

Posted by butalidnl on 6 March 2011

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has been putting a lot of its energy on the question of the RH bill. I think that instead it should focus on the real moral question – that of corruption. Corruption is an evil in our society. It is so prevalent that we need everybody’s help in fighting it. Now that the government is starting to do something about it, it is time that the church also does its bit.

Isn’t the church going against corruption already? No, not really. If it was, I think that there will be a lot less corruption in society today. What can the church do then? Well, let us see some of the ways.

Declare Corrupt Money “Tainted”
The Muslims have a name for it: haram.  It is the opposite of halal. Haram means “tainted”, in the sense that if someone holds it, ingests it, or receives it, they commit a sin. Good Muslims avoid haram things like the plague.   Haram works: a few years ago, MILF imams declared kidnap ransom money haram. Now, the Abu Sayyaf has difficulty using ransom money, and consequently kidnap-for-ransom has dropped dramatically.

I suppose that the church could simply say that corruption money is cursed. While less emotive than haram it should serve as a dis-incentive to government officials and others to engage in corruption.

If money from corruption is “cursed”, then corrupt people will have a harder time spending their money. And this will greatly reduce the extent of corruption. The church should take the lead in this, by refusing money from known corrupt sources. They can do this by asking people who donate big money to the church to prove where they got the money, or they could set a limit on the amount donated.  If the church does this, it will indeed be brave; since it will be foregoing a lot of donations. But it is sure to have an effect. The church should also preach that knowingly receiving cursed/tainted money (from corruption) constitutes a sin in itself.

Revise the concept of Penance for Corruption
Corrupt officials often erase their sins by donating to the church, or to other charitable causes. They may even confess their sins, and get to “pray 3 Hail Mary’s” to erase their sins. If the Catholic church declares that the penance for the sin of corruption is that the money be returned, and that donations will not do anything to ensure a place in heaven, this will be another big thing towards reducing corruption.  (See: Catholicism Impedes Philippine Development)

Set a Good Example
The Church should institute internal reforms to ensure that corruption within its ranks is eradicated. It should require financial auditing of all church funds, the issuance of receipts for large donations, the publishing of financial reports on the internet.

Setting a good example is key in gaining the high moral ground in the campaign against corruption. When people see that the church is not corrupt, they will heed its calls to stop corruption.

Particular Forms of Corruption
Of course, before launching a campaign on corruption, the church should be clear exactly what kind of corruption it is campaigning against.  I suggest that it concentrate on the following:

Graft. This is the use of government money for personal gain. Or the theft of government money. It takes various forms. The most obvious would be when a portion of funds for a department or LGU are simply siphoned off. I think that what the Generals Garcia et al have done is a clear example of graft. But there are also more indirect ways. For example, Congressmen who refer projects to line agencies as part of their “pork barrel” get a kickback from that agency (e.g. Dept of Public Highways). Or, contractors are asked to shoulder an LGU executive’s “representation expenses” and in return they get some juicy contract in return.

The church should condemn graft in the strongest terms. It could even threaten (and impose) exclusion  from church services for the worst grafters.

Tax Evasion. This is rather straightforward. If you don’t pay your taxes correctly, you are guilty of corruption.  But taxes are not only income taxes. Importers often pay corrupt customs officials to under-declare the value of the things they import, in order that the tax assessment will be lower. This is called “technical smuggling”, and it is tax evasion. Or, medical doctors don’t declare the true amount of patient fees. And many people buy smuggled goods e.g. cigarettes.

The church should call for full tax compliance. And that people who evade taxes should confess this, and pay the tax due as penance.

Bribery. When you pay a policeman who caught you driving a car that should not be driven on that day due to number coding, this is bribery. When you pay a “fixer” to arrange papers for you at a government office, this is also bribery. Of course, this is small change compared to bigger cases of bribery, but they are significant in that bribery becomes the social norm if allowed to continue.

The church should condemn bribery whether it is small or big. People should pay their “number coding” fines instead of bribing policemen. Church workers could be sent to visit LTO and other such offices to “harass” fixers. The Church should also declare that both the one giving the bribe as well as the one receiving the bribe commit a sin.

Usury. The practice of “5-6” is a clear case of usury. It is corruption in that it exploits the receiver of the loan; who has to pay such a high price just in order to have money for their business or for urgent family needs. It is exploiting the other person’s tight financial situation.

The church has a lot of funds. It should set up a system to provide proper credit facilities for the poor.  The practice of “5-6” should be clearly declared as a sin.

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