The New High Priests

In the debate over reproductive health, the country is caught between the increasingly vociferous moralist and rationalist voices in society.

Reproductive health advocates consider the involvement of the Catholic church in the debate over whether or not to enact a law that would provide the legal basis of family planning practices to be propagated by the state in schools, hospitals and workplaces an unwelcome intrusion. The debate does not seem to be about the merits of the measure but on defining the proper role of the church in relation to the state and society.

For the so-called Filipino Free-thinkers, an association of humanists, scientists, agnostics and atheists, and their ilk that role should be completely circumscribed by the separation of church and state provision of our consistution. In fact they would prefer it if the church performed as much of a diminished role in society as possible. For the “middle forces” or the so-called “yellow army” in the People Power coalition of President Aquino, the church performs an important role as moral guardians of our society; there lies the problem.

The members of civil society that often unite against corruption in government and mobilize everytime there is a crisis involving the illegitimate use of power splits asunder over social issues involving identity or a crisis of moral uncertainty. One faction looks back to tradition, while another looks forward to modernity. PNoy has been careful to tip-toe on the issue, afraid to upset either party. From his standpoint he cannot afford to lose either the moral or rationalist wings of his broad coalition.

In weak states, unable to withstand pressure from groups based on tribal and kinship loyalties, the only recourse to rein in the greed and abuse of power by the political class is some kind of appeal to a higher moral code. The advice and admonitions of people with moral authority who belong to the religious class help instruct future rulers on how to build a just society.

Without a moral code governing society that lays the basis for the legitimate exercise of power, that little thing called the rule of law which separates primitive from modern societies would have never come into being. The pre-colonial rajahs of India had their Brahmins, Chinese emperors had their mandarins, and the kings of Europe had their bishops to advise and guide them. These priestly classes would determine if their kings and emperors had lost “the mandate of heaven” and could therefore be deposed.

A tension arose between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the peasantry in pre-modern states. As Fukuyama points out in the first volume of The Origins of Political Order, a just ruler was seen as one who did not engage in excessive predation, and sided with the peasants against exploitation by their aristocratic landlords. They would concentrate authority in a central bureaucracy and military autonomous from feudal estates through taxation. This is how modern states came about. But this wouldn’t have occurred without the help of the priestly class that lent legitimacy to them.

The corruption of the priestly arbiters of power independent of tribal or kinship alliances occurred as they increasingly took on the trappings of power and gave in to the biological impulse to bequeth their titles and assets to offspring that they were originally discouraged or forbidden from having.

Since the Protestant Reformation followed by the European Renaissance and the scientific revolution early in the second millennium, the clergy have been increasingly marginalized from exercising their legal and moral authority over heads of state, particularly in Britain where the observance of common law as distinct from Canon law took root and independent judges held the English monarchs in check.

The veiled threats issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to withdraw the “mandate from heaven” if the RH bill was passed was reminiscent of the way Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1076 and forced him to come barefoot to Canossa to pleading for clemency. This action was pre-empted by PNoy in his speech at the University of the Philippines when he in essence dared them to do so, prompting one Catholic clergy to say that the son was very different from his mother referring to the pious Cory Aquino.

The president with his economics degree represents a new order of rationalist thinking on which to base public policy. Economists are considered the new high priests in today’s modern state. Whereas shamans and withdoctors were once summoned to perform rituals and cast spells to protect the polity from plague, famine and wars, so do economists conjure up their spreadsheets and statistical models to forecast and plot the direction of the state in this day and age.

When he announced his bid for the presidency, PNoy expressed a formula for countering the calculus of corruption which consisted mainly of incentives in the form of punishments and rewards. This was an expression of his vision for a state governed by the principles of homo economicus. If his mother appealed to a sense of altruistic motives, PNoy would rely on self-interested behavior to stay on the straight and narrow.

For similar reasons is he advocating the passage of the RH bill. The rationale behind this piece of legislation is primarily economic in nature for the president, but for many of its supporters, it is much more than that. For them, it would represent a break in Filipino mores and customs away from traditional social values based on religious beliefs and into a more modern one based on individual freedom. In this regard, both oppositors and advocates of the bill would agree.

The rise of religious fundamentalism or the resurgence of traditional values in response to the failings of modernity to achieve its promised objectives of human progress and happiness has cast the economic rationalist high priests in a bad light. Their overly materialist and utilitarian prescriptions have found their limits as society increasingly becomes more affluent. In fact they create new problems.

Those opposed to the RH bill point to the breakdown of the family in many Western countries as caused by this way of thinking. They point to the commodification of sex that freedom of choice allows (Catholic doctrine teaches that sex is only meant to perform its function within the “sacrament” of marriage). From their point of view, the bill is but one part in a wide array of liberal ideas and values that have caused the breakdown of society.

The conduct of the public debate can be characterized more as a battlefield than as a market place of ideas at the moment with either side engaged in vociferous name-calling and taunting. Discussions over deeply held beliefs often do slide into an abyss of crass behavior.

It would be better if this were not so. For the rationalists to come to terms with the legitimate role religion performs in modern day living for individuals who turn to it not just for rewards in the hereafter, but also in the here and now (as empirical studies have validated), and for moralists to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer coerce society through the state to adhere to its principles and that they now have to compete in the market for ideas without resorting to abuse of their spiritual authority, would be a big step towards restoring civility in the public discourse.

I am sure we can all say ‘amen’ to that.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp (249 Posts)

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.


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