Taming the tiger

Patricia Evangelista
A body that calls itself 'a chronicler of campus events' and 'a repository of student talents' has no business closing its doors to dissenting opinion and declaring all who disagree fools by virtue of their disagreement

PATRICIA EVANGELISTA. Photo by Raymund AmonoyIn a nation of sinners, they are the moral few.

In a September 30 editorial that waxed poetic over the University of Santo Tomas’ proud history of orthodox thought, student paper The Varsitarian claimed superiority over the “intellectual mercenaries” of other Catholic universities. The Varsitarian imagines itself and its university as rebels of the new world order, “going against the grain, going against the tide.” In upholding the stand of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines condemning the Reproductive Health bill, they have lived up to their Catholic name, the proud children of a pontifical institution—“the second to be so named in world history.”

The Varsitarian finds “quite shocking” the statements made by professors of universities Ateneo and De La Salle in support of the RH Bill. They are “dishonest” in their convictions, are “naive and misguided,” their opinions are “lemon,” and are “intellectual pretenders and interlopers.” They find it “quite gratifying that UST has cracked the whip.” A letter, written by UST Secretary General Fr. Winston Cabading, O.P. is quoted in the paper, emphasizing that “any statements or actions by faculty members [found] offensive to Catholic ideals and teachings may be a cause for dismissal after due process.”

To The Varsitarian and to the administration of UST, Catholicism demands upholding the gospel according to the bishops, the men they call “successors of the Christ’s apostles.” To enter a Catholic school, to teach in a Catholic university is to stand by the Catholic standard declared by the bishops. There is no room for personal conviction once an individual declares himself Catholic or chooses to work and study in a Catholic institution.

“But what’s more appalling,” says The Varsitarian, “is that the Jesuit and Christian Brother administrations of Ateneo and La Salle didn’t reprimand their faculty members for openly defying the bishops.”

A sense of righteous superiority is carried throughout the editorial. The Varsitarian attacks those who have “clung on to their faculty membership in Catholic institutions.” Already they have decided that professors of the Ateneo and De La Salle are without intellectual conviction, already there is no possibility that their stance is a result of intellectual conviction. They are cowards and mercenaries. “They want to have their cake and eat it, too.”

Yet by the standards of The Varsitarian, the Church itself has committed appalling wrongs. They have threatened excommunication and failed to apply it. They have allowed their own priests and nuns to make statements in behalf of the RH bill. They have failed to crack the whip after the Catholic President of the Republic of the Philippines came out in public support of the RH bill. Worse, they continue to tolerate the Catholic pretenders of De La Salle and Ateneo. 

The editorial essentially has a single point, irrelevant of its haphazard and largely illogical shopping list of reasons why the RH Bill is a plague on the Philippines. “Over and above academic freedom, the Catholic university exists for evangelical purposes.” The same commitment “is demanded of students.”

Illustration by Geloy Concepcion

And yet this same university continues to accept the tuition of students of varying religions, allowing into its classes Muslims and Protestants whose personal moralities are certainly not approved by the CBCP. Unless and until the university demands the conversion of these students before they accept their diplomas, the university concedes the multiplicity of morality, and the fact that a Catholic university is more than just a mouthpiece for the orthodox Church.  

What is forgotten is the fact that The Varsitarian is a newspaper. A body that calls itself “a chronicler of campus events” and “a repository of student talents” has no business closing its doors to dissenting opinion and declaring all who disagree fools by virtue of their disagreement. There are universal principles that govern the practice of journalism, opinion or otherwise, and exceptions are not made even for the second coming of God himself.

The public trust of journalism is truth, however inconvenient that truth is. That The Varsitarian took a stance against the RH Bill is not the concern, it is in its lack of reasoned analysis and its unwillingness to consider the value of dissenting opinion. Those who disagree are enemies. Those who question are disloyal. One of its columnists went so far as to deride a student who on Facebook demanded why no survey was conducted on behalf of the Thomasian community. “Such arrogance!” was the response of Varsitarian’s Lorenzo Luigi Gayya. The student, he said “along with other UST students and alumni who are attacking their Alma Mater for its stand on the RH bill” have lost their right “to call themselves full-blooded Thomasians.”

Christianity or tyranny?

The same irrational logic is present in the larger national debate. The CBCP continues to claim they stand for the will of the Catholic nation, just as that same Catholic majority demonstrates that men in robes do not always define Catholic spirituality. The unity that The Varsitarian celebrates is as tenuous as the Catholic unity the CBCP claims. The only difference is that the CBCP operates in the context of a secular democratic nation, where its claims are tested by facts and debate in the public forum. UST does not permit this testing, and appears to fear the results of free speech. Questions are dangerous, and are considered a threat to “solid Catholic education.” Both school and paper declare a united stance and yet find it necessary to “crack the whip” on “offensive views,” demanding that all members of the institution “toe the line.”

It does not matter how much UST distances itself from The Varsitarian. The choice to limit academic freedom belongs to the university. Professors are punished for statements, students are given points for negative online comments posted on pro-RH Bill sites, and a repressive school newspaper receives the tacit support of a school-sanctioned adviser.

This is what makes the entire issue ominous. A university, a place of learning and critical thought, one that claims its mission is the “pursuit of truth,” declares that independent thought is a sin, and that to question is a violation of conscience.

The point, says UST, is to see to it “that all members of the Thomasian academic community” continue to “resonate with one voice.” This is not unity or intellectual conviction; it is rank dishonesty, and insults those who legitimately stand against the bill according to their own conscience. The administration of UST and The Varsitarian may be within their rights, but they are in no way to be applauded for it. There is no reason to celebrate the moral conviction of an unwilling flock.

This is not written in opposition to the grand institution of the University of Santo Tomas, many of whose alumni have gone bravely to fight in defense of the right to speak. This is, instead, a judgment against those who celebrate tyranny and call it Christianity, and is written in sympathy with the many Thomasians who are forced to call The Varsitarian their own. – Rappler.com

(Writer Patricia Evangelista is a product of 11 years of Catholic convent education before earning her degree from the University of the Philippines. Photographer and visual artist Geloy Concepcion graduated from the University of Santo Tomas in 2012 with a degree in Visual Arts.)


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