Are the British punishing us for letting them steal Sabah from us? For permitting them to include Sabah in the Federation of Malaysia, and then forgetting to invade Malaysia?
Are they smarting from our absentmindedness in failing to protest the training by British special forces of the first leaders and fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)?
These questions came to mind after I encountered in succession this April and May two tough-minded pieces of British journalism that curiously took issue with Catholicism in the Philippines and its lapses and eccentricities.
Exhibit one is a front-page story in the Guardian in London last Easter Sunday, April 3, which bore the provocative title: “Christianity is a religion for Losers.” It used as dramatic illustration the colored photograph of a Filipino devotee being nailed to a cross on Good Friday.
Exhibit two is an interview of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle by BBC broadcaster Stephen Sackur on the program “Hard Talk,” which was broadcast last Thursday, and which subjected the cardinal to incisive grilling on local Church issues and policies.
I should point out that the Guardian and the BBC are two of the most prestigious media organizations in the world, with many distinctions and achievements in their respective histories.
It was the Guardian which published the expose on the practice of the US National Security Agency of monitoring the phone conversations of 35 world leaders, after being given the scoop by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Love is stronger than death
The Guardian article was written by columnist Giles Anthony Fraser. He is a priest of the Church of England. He writes a weekly Saturday column for the Guardian, and appears frequently on BBC Radio 4. He also teaches at the London School of Economics.
The crucifixion photo is captioned: “Helpers nail one of 18 symbolic ‘Christs’ to a cross on Good Friday in San Pedro Cutud, Philippines.” There were 17 others?
In the article, Fraser writes in a key passage:
“In the Christian story, success and failure are inverted. The first will be last and the last first. The rich are cast down and the poor are exulted. The true king is crowned with mockery and thorns not with gold and ermine.
“Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers. Ecce homo, said Pilate. Behold, the man. This is humanity.
“But here’s the thing. The Christian story, like the best sort of terrifying psychoanalysis, strips you down to nothing in order for you to face yourself anew. For it turns out that losers are not despised or rejected, not ultimately. In fact, losers can discover something about themselves that winners cannot ever appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are and not because of what they achieve. That despite it all, raw humanity is glorious and wonderful, entirely worthy of love. This is revealed precisely at the greatest point of dejection. The resurrection is not a conjuring trick with bones. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.”
I thought at first that publishing the gory photograph patronized the Filipino way of faith. But after reading Fraser’s incisive and sometimes moving column, I had second thoughts about writing the Guardian.
Why Tagle, not Aquino?
Cardinal Tagle’s appearance on BBC’s “Hard Talk” is a kind of Calvary in its own way. Hard Talk, as its name implies, is tough, inquisitorial and gritty.
Stephen Sackur, the presenter and interviewer, makes Christianne Amanpour seem like a kitten in comparison.
Sackur brings formidable credentials to his work as host of Hard Talk. He was educated at Cambridge and Harvard.
In November 2010, he was awarded the “International TV Personality of the Year Award” by the Association of International Broadcasters.
He served at one time as BBC Middle East Correspondent in both Cairo and Jerusalem, covering the peace process, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the emergence of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat. To prepare a documentary on Islamic fundamentalism, he lived with Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon for two weeks.
In the interview with Cardinal Tagle, Sackur appeared bent on driving the Philippine Catholic Church up the wall.
He suggested that the Church is out of tune with majority public opinion. He questioned why the Church opposes government provision of free contraceptives. Then he also questioned the Church’s opposition to divorce.
Why Sackur zeroed in on the local church and who set him up to do this inquisition is cause for wonder. As the interview proceeded, with Sackur pouncing on his prey and the Cardinal squirming, I detected a fundamental weakness in Sackur’s line of questioning. It runs head on against our Bill of Rights which protects the right of individuals to practice their religion without government interference.
He glosses over the fact that Filipino women are totally free to obtain and use contraception. The assertion that these products are hard to obtain or expensive is not a justification for government interference.
Sackur was toughest when he questioned Cardinal Tagle on the fabulous wealth of the Archdiocese of Manila, of which he is head, and on alleged cases of priestly abuse of minors. He cited the accusations of an Irish priest based in the Philippines, Fr. Shay Cullen, whom the Church has never really bothered to engage in argument. He left little wiggle room for the Cardinal to wiggle. Tagle mistakenly thought that a genial and smiling manner was an answer.
All told, the interview challenged mainly the unwavering conservatism of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, at a time when many countries are liberalizing. But this is debatable at best.
It’s a wonder why Cardinal Tagle agreed to the interview at all, and why he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of the subject and thrust of the questioning.
I enjoy Hard Talk a lot and generally admire Stephen’s incisive questioning. My disappointment is that in coming to Manila, he did not choose a more interesting interview subject, and a more gripping topic for inquisition.
Why did he not pick President Aquino? On the subject of the government’s handling of the Mamasapano incident? Or on the government’s peace deal in Mindanao and the Bangsamoro?
Aquino appearing on Hard Talk is probably as unlikely as winning the Nobel prize. Sackur will drive him nuts.
Still, for Stephen Sackur to come all the way to Manila to discuss contraception is a huge letdown.
My Sabah theory behind British criticism sounds more intriguing.