“Beg your indulgence”

Image credit: internetmonk.com

How the Catholic Church eliminated its own version of pork barrel and how the Philippines can too

Back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was undergoing its developmental phase. It was not the huge global entity that it has become today. It was heavily dependent on the patronage of the landed aristocracy. As a result, the Pope did not have much clout and could not exert central authority to appoint priests and bishops to the parishes of feudal lords who would place their relatives in these prestigious positions.

Faced with limited means to address the missionary role of the Church, priests decided to engage in the practice of selling indulgence, “the remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.” Although the sale of forgiveness, which is what this amounted to was not really sanctioned by the church, it was nevertheless widely practised out of necessity. The funds raised went to pay for monasteries, schools and even Crusades to recover the Holy Land.

Despite the noble causes it supported, the practice undermined the legitimacy of church teachings. The abuse of indulgence eventually contributed to the Protestant Reformation which weakened the Church by splitting it in two. If such an organisation devoted to otherworldly spiritual endeavours can fall for such malpractice, what more a government not meant to be run by angels, solely devoted to temporal affairs?

The Philippine state is in a position much like what the early Roman church faced. You have the president of the republic resorting to the bully pulpit of his office, engaging in mini temper tantrums, to complain before the nation that he cannot even get lowly bureaucrats to comply with his orders to do their job and follow the rules set out by the law of the land. These bureaucrats are purportedly protected by wealthy elites who placed them there.

For the same reason, the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) or pork barrel, though it may go to some noble programs, actually corrodes and weakens our democracy by perpetuating many corrupt politicians in power. This limits inclusiveness in our politics as dominant clans have ruled many places since the time of the late-Spanish or early-American colonial period. Their exclusive control over most jurisdictions has been directly correlated with the severity of poverty across the nation.

The dominance of aristocratic political dynasties, undisturbed by the upheavals of the Pacific war or Marcos’s New Society, is actually facilitated by taxpayer’s money through the institution of pork barrel. These elites have also weakened the state by appointing friends and allies into strategic posts within key agencies and business units such as the Bureau of Customs which provide a revenue stream not for the government, but for the “padrinos” who have cornered it through such appointments.

When appointees are recommended by power brokers acting as “padrinos” and subsequently underperform, we know it is for a reason. Their appointments undermine the very rules that they as officers are meant to uphold. It is clear that the rules within these agencies are not set by the central government, but by power brokers who benefit from illegal activities. This weakens the very integrity of our state, as in the case of the customs agency since it erodes our ability to enforce our borders and puts this power in the hands of crime bosses.

According to Francis Fukuyama in the Origins of Political Order, the Church was able to gain financial independence from its patrons when it undermined the very notion of kinship and family. How did it do that? By refusing to sanction cross-cousin marriages, and recognising the rights of women to own and bequeath property. Previously, childless widows married back into the clan of their deceased spouses which allowed his land and other property to revert back to his family.

By changing this custom, the church encouraged childless widows and spinsters to convey their inheritance to itself. The church profited immensely from this. By undermining the family, the Church was able to wean itself off of the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to fund its missionary projects.

In the same way, the Philippine government needs to wean itself off the system of patronage. Banning PDAF won’t solve the problem, just as banning the sale of indulgences did not prevent corruption from continuing in some shape or form. It takes more than idealistic moral crusading to get rid of it. Apart from eliminating pork, state resources must be used to shore up political reforms that would make elections more inclusive and contestable.

The irony is that the large sum of money devoted to pork demonstrates that the state now has the capacity to directly finance political institutions and decouple our democracy from the “anarchy of families” as Alfred McCoy put it.

If we promoted meritocratic institutions within our political system through state funded electoral campaigns, political parties and better pay for elected officials, we would be able to remove the perverse incentives currently at play that motivate the abuse of PDAF and other appointive and recommendatory powers.

Let’s face it, political dynasties have begged the indulgence of their constituents (we the people) for far too long and gotten away with “patrimonial plunder” (hat tip: Paul Hutchcroft) – which is using the very money they have stolen from the public purse to pander to the needs of the very same people they are keeping impoverished by that act.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

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.

  • GabbyBD

    the link you posted made me re-read an argument we had 2 years ago.

    i still dont’ understand your position back then 🙂

    • Emmanuel Doy Santos

      GabbyBD, I put the blame on me for not explaining things adequately enough.