Except for the priests and lay leaders with the national liberation movement, the Philippine Catholic Church has largely been identified with the status quo. Investments with the blue-chip corporations, ownership of prime real estate that would make Donald Trump look like a slum lord, running universities for the Filipino elite, Sunday homilies that obscure the “Church of the Poor” genesis of the faith. The kids trained by an elite school, for example, could hardly communicate with their drivers and maids, despite the school’s superficial paeans to egalitarianism.
Priests who really wanted to fight for social and economic justice left the priesthood to join the underground. The likes of Balweg, Jalandoni, de la Torre, Fernandez et al deemed it impossible to achieve radical changes from within the mainstream, pro-elite Church. They chafed at the system that coddled the rich and the powerful. Believe it or not, many priests had built a flourishing ministry around Janet Napoles and offered no expression of remorse after the pork barrel scam unraveled.
The Church has never been for the lepers, the olive pickers, the fishermen and the prostitutes — the original constituencies. Pope Francis, during his visit here, may have found no evidence that the Philippine Church is “for the poor, by the poor and of the poor.” The Pope may have rejoiced over the size of the crowds that lined up to see him and the crowds physical demonstration of fervor. But he probably found very little kinship between the official, institutional Church and the downtrodden. “Sarado Katoliko” means a church unmoved by change and stuck in orthodoxy, not hard-core, burning belief in the Catholic faith.
That may change soon.
Bishop Arturo M. Bastes of the Diocese of Sorsogon, an SVD missionary, has outlined what is to date the boldest proposal to come out from the mainstream Church to institutionalize support for the poor that goes far above and beyond the support infrastructure provided under the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. Any moment soon, the proposal will leave the confines of Sorsogon for adoption by the other dioceses.
The audacity of the proposal, called Project Serendipity, is only matched by the boldness of the political tool that has been designed to achieve it. First, an explainer on Project Serendipity.
Project Serendipity is about the creation of a fund called Sovereign Social Security and Welfare Protection Fund, or The Fund. The Fund, as envisioned, will be sourced from 20 percent of the “country’s wealth, income and resources.” The 20 percent may vary from year to year but there are established algorithms on how to compute that 20 percent.
The Fund shall cover a broad range of social security and welfare requirements, represented by the acronym HELPS, or Health, Education, Livelihood, Emergency Assistance, Pension and Shelter. The first three are designed for the able-bodied poor who want to move up in life and the last three are for the elderly, the infirm and the sick.
To prevent politicians and vested interests from taking advantage of the Fund and meddling on the usage, a professional management team, modeled after the Nordic/Singapore management of sovereign funds is mandatory under Serendipity.
As spelled out in an explainer, Serendipity “is a project of, by, from and for the people to directly, properly, sufficiently, empower themselves through an effective social security, human development and welfare program for all.”
While the specifics on how to transform that proposal into an actual 20 percent yearly and mandatory allocation in the national spending program have yet to be laid down, step-by-step, the legal thrust is clear enough. A group of citizens will directly petition the Supreme Court for a constitutional amendment to allocate that amount for the Fund.
Lay leaders with legal background, citizens from across all dioceses and priests and bishops will sign that petition. It is a revolutionary approach but the proponents are hopeful that the Fund will come to be the first amendment to the Constitution. Bishop Bastes and other proponents are hopeful that the amendment shall come to pass without much political recrimination and rancor. Can the High Court ignore a citizens’ petition of more than a million easily-verifiable signatures?
The radical proposal, once enshrined in the Constitution, is designed to usher in some sort of a “liberation movement” for the underclass. With a guaranteed welfare program, they will hopefully break free from patronage politics, dole–out politics and vote according to the dictate of their conscience. The creation of an underclass, empowered and with civic virtues is the overarching agenda of Serendipity. It is designed as the antidote to politics of corruption and malfeasance. The Fund is a social insurance program with the grand political objective of freeing the vulnerable class from the clutches of corrupt politics.
At the 112th Plenary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in January, Bastes addressed his fellow bishops on the urgency of bringing the Church back to its roots, as the Church of the Poor. To focus attention to the poor means to do something concrete for the poor, the bishop intoned. The Serendipity Fund will precisely be that concrete step, he said.
Many things have transpired since that Plenary in Cebu City and the “concrete“ step to help the poor has a working draft already circulated by Bishop Bastes across his Sorsogon diocese. Sorsogon is a province always on the cusp of emerging into greatness but can never quite live up to its potential. Just like many other provinces in the country with unfulfilled potentials. Dragged, predictably, by debilitating poverty.
It is interesting to watch how the Sorsogon initiative on Project Serendipity will unfold at the larger political and legal stage. Our prayers are with Bishop Bastes.