Catholic Church

[OPINION] How to earn treasure in heaven? Catholic higher education in the pandemic

Rene Luis Tadle
[OPINION] How to earn treasure in heaven? Catholic higher education in the pandemic
'Catholic school administrations do not need to search for the poor outside their campuses, because the people in need could be their employees'

The COVID-19 pandemic tests the moral compass of the owners and administrators of Catholic colleges and universities. Amid dwindling enrollment, would their faith in divine providence move them to preserve jobs and maintain the wages and benefits of school employees? 

Catholic universities and colleges in the Philippines are known to offer quality education. Three out of 4 top universities in the Philippines are Catholic schools (Ateneo, De La Salle, UST). Centuries-old religious orders and congregations own and manage some of these institutions. In general, the Catholic Church views Catholic schools as places where the love of Christ is felt and experienced. Thus, it is not enough for them to advance knowledge, dole out qualifications, and ensure that human resource in this country remains globally competitive. 

In his 2019 address to the members of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, Pope Francis challenged Catholic higher educational institutions not only to have “a conscience, but also an intellectual and moral strength whose responsibility goes beyond the person to be educated and extends to the needs of all humanity.” This is the reason why some Catholic schools from the beginning of the pandemic searched and opened their campuses to shelter and feed the frontliners and the homeless. Preaching could never be more eloquent than compassion.

Catholic school administrations do not need to search for the poor outside their campuses, because the people in need could be their employees. As the saying goes, the best way to preach compassion is to practice charity at home. However, there’s the rub – wage cuts, forced leaves and retrenchments of employees, including denigration of job security, may be more convenient options in dealing with revenue losses arising from decrease in enrollment.  

One may argue that it is unfair to demand more from Catholic higher educational institutions more than what the labor code provides. They are not charitable institutions and should be treated like ordinary business enterprises. Thus, in the time of pandemic they should be given more leniency and understanding. But I need to point out that these institutions are non-profit, non-stock, and tax-free. From a more mundane accounting perspective, I argue that these universities and colleges admittedly will suffer losses due to decrease in enrollment. The loss in the first 6 months and the projected loss, however, can be mitigated by resumption of tuition revenue inflows when classes resume. Further, financial resources such as accumulated savings or fund balances could immediately cover all losses incurred.  

A certain loss for a limited period can hardly damage their resource capacity. Many of these institutions have accumulated liquid assets over years and decades of academic operations that it will be farthest from reality that they will suffer financial distress or go bankrupt short of retrenching or retiring employees. Parenthetically, some of these Catholic religious institutions have been in the business of education even during colonial times as early as 4 centuries ago.

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Thus, the question “should the consecrated men and women who made a vow to live in poverty to gain treasure in heaven use the school’s accumulated savings and assets to preserve jobs?” The life and deeds of the respective founders of these religious orders and congregations could provide the answer. Example, Jean Guiraud’s book (1911) St. Dominic recounts that when famine struck Spain, the future saint and founder of the Order of Preachers sold his furniture and precious manuscripts. When asked to explain, Dominic retorted: “Would you have me study off these dead skins when men are dying of hunger?” 

This story of compassion and other narratives of the lives and virtues of Catholic saints could edify and inspire young men and women to enter the seminaries or nunneries.  It does not follow, however, that they will act accordingly when appointed as administrators of Catholic schools. Obviously, holy ordination would not necessarily turn them into paragons of generosity and compassion. Assiduous reading of the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church would not make ordained ministers pro-labor overnight. Like ABS-CBN, some of these religious educational institutions, are not immune to workers’ unrest and the accusation of unfair labor practices. Incidentally, the title of some labor-related cases decided by the Supreme Court are “sanctified” by names of Catholic saints! 

In the Gospel of Mathew there was this rich young man who asked Jesus: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 

Jesus responded: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” It is easy to understand why the rich young man went away sad.  According to Matthew the rich young man owned much property. Jesus’s last remark is instructive: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 

But what is there to say to the school employees who just lost their jobs? I do not know. I guess remind them to pray for their administrator harder and be consoled with the thought that while workers and toilers remain miserable on this earth, in the end of time, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is the earthly tragedy that some employees in Catholic schools are facing today. –

Rene Luis Tadle is a faculty member of the Philosophy Department of the Faculty of  Arts and Letters, University of Santo Tomas.