Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Book Review: Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church

All hyperbole aside, the recently-released book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, should be an extremely important piece of investigative journalism. In its pages, longtime Church-beat journalist Aries C. Rufo lays bare some of the best-guarded and most downright scandalous secrets of one of the oldest existing organizations in the country, the Catholic Church of the Philippines, revelations which touch on ultra-sensitive topics such as sexual indiscretions and financial mismanagement, among others.

This compilation of reports is no string of blind items, either; Rufo gives very specific names, and dates and places, and whenever possible, his sources as well. From disclosing  the sexual improprieties of Bishops of Dioceses in Makati and Malolos to the financial depredations of Bishops responsible for large amounts of money, to allegations of corruption that go all the way up to the top, both of the Church and the Philippine government, Rufo pulls no punches whatsoever, and does not hesitate to point out the irony inherent to the Church's excoriation of corruption among government officials while it remains distressingly tolerant of similar, if not even more reprehensible practices among its own ranks. 

The book is told through a series of anecdotes regarding various parishes and Church offices, starting with the sexual controversies, following it with the financial scandals and the political scandals, and almost finishing off with a "best practices" anecdotal discussion on how cooperation between the Church and the government can actually work for the betterment of the public, and ending the main discussion with a chapter on how a bishop falsely accuses a nun of theft.

The book is a relatively slim volume, with only about 182 pages of content with the remainder disclosing Rufo's bibliography, which consists largely of his own work, but Rufo's anecdotes are well-chosen in terms of impact and relevance. However, it is precisely because the subject matter of this book is as important as it is to Philippine society that I cannot help but be particularly harsh on the manner in which it is presented.

Rufo's biggest problem in unveiling his stories is that for all of his declarations, and those of Rappler Chief Marites Danguilen Vitug to the contrary, the book reads, in many instances, very much like the demolition job of the Catholic Church that this book's detractors will no doubt claim it is. A lot of the stories in his accounts explicitly named eyewitnesses, including, in some instances, people directly involved in the controversies narrated, and their accounts are utterly compelling. I had heard some of the stories told in those pages before, some of them described abstrusely, but reading them here, with all of bloody details so to speak, was another experience entirely,  and were it not for the author's consistent need to interject his own opinion I would have been completely immersed in the text.

I find it regrettable that Rufo is not content to let the evidence speak for itself, which it does rather eloquently in many instances; he seems to feel the need to push things along with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He casually tosses around phrases like "throwback to the Dark Ages," and constantly chooses instead to skip to the conclusions to be drawn from the incidents rather than patiently build his arguments with his anecdotes. In short, he cannot help but  constantly dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s for his readers. "Hey look, everyone! These people are eeeeeviiiiil!" Though this book may be a work of non-fiction, it is still propelled by narrative, and as such Rufo should still respect the cardinal rule of effective narrative: SHOW, don't TELL.

Given that the book is written in English, it seems fairly clear that Rufo's intended readership is considerably more educated than the kind who get all of their knowledge from reading tabloids. For all of that, however, he does not seem to give his readers any credit whatsoever, virtually bludgeoning them with his constant editorials throughout the book that basically leave the reader very little room to make up their minds for themselves on the state of the local Catholic Church. Now, personally, I am not a fan of people dictating to me how to think, whether it's a priest or some journalist with an axe to grind, and so I could not help but take some umbrage at Rufo's attempt to manipulate my sentiments on the matter.

Ironically, it is in discussing the much-mooted Reproductive Health issue that Rufo actually goes relatively easy on the Church and instead insinuates that the Philippine government went the "extra mile," so to speak, to ensure the passage by the legislature of the RH Law. While he refrains from ascribing impropriety to the Church in this portion, he nonetheless remains decidedly unkind to their anti-RH stance. There's very little actual reportage here, and nearly everything Rufo says has already been amply covered by the mainstream media. This inclusion of this episode in the Church's troubled history, while admittedly important, nonetheless seems like an afterthought, or worse, like the act of kicking someone when they're down.

Worse still, Rufo completely wrecks the flow of his book, in which he discusses, in succession, the various scandals of the Catholic Church involving sex, politics and money, then offers a hopeful chapter on collaboration between the Church and the government, by ending with a chapter on a bishop allegedly harassing a nun whom he has accused of theft, which, on its face, is little more than a he-said-she-said account of a single incident involving two people. Considering that, in the preceding chapters, Rufo tackles issues involving institutional decay brought about by the alleged licentiousness and greed of Church leaders on an appalling scale, this relatively petty incident feels decidedly out of place and, again, like an afterthought. To my mind, it would have been better for Rufo to end with the chapter discussing the encouraging cooperative efforts between some local dioceses and local governments, but it is almost as if he suffers from some form of verbal diarrhea and cannot help but end the meat of his discourse with a cheap shot rather than words of encouragement.

On top of all of this, it seems painfully obvious that this book was not properly edited or proofread, with Rufo mixing up the words "foresight" and "hindsight" and, much later in the book, actually inventing a President of the Philippines who never existed before: Ferdinand Ramos. Considering that the book isn't even very long, it should not have been too difficult a task to edit its content and catch gaffes like that.

To my mind, however the real tragedy of this book is that, when stripped of what distinctly feels like an anti-clerical agenda, it actually makes for some very engaging, and more importantly, informative reading.

Personally, I have long believed that the biggest problem of the Church was the presence of a few rotten apples in high places rather than flaws inherent to the institution itself. The Church has had its fair history of villains in its two millennia of existence--it is the only institution that I know of, after all, that actually put a dead man on trial, corpse and all--but it has endured all this time because it is bigger than any of its vicars or their foibles.  While it is true that institutions are formed by people, and the presence of arguably less-than-altruistic persons in the Church hierarchy may have, over time, resulted in some pernicious practices becoming fossilized, such negative institutions may likewise be demolished by people and rebuilt from the ground up, if necessary. All the Church needs to remain relevant, even in today's society, is the right leaders, as Pope John Paul II demonstrated after a fashion and as Pope Francis I is currently starting to demonstrate, particularly in this era where the Roman Catholic Church is finally starting to accept responsibility for the iniquities perpetrated by its clergy on the faithful.

The anecdotes Rufo shares with his readers, if one is able to see past his heavy-handed commentary which borders on pontification, shed light on the human frailty of several members of our local clergy, and hit home how important it is to shatter, once and for all the myth of the clergy's infallibility. Whether or not the Church and its apologists choose to accept this truth, the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church is an institution in dire need of repair, a former bastion of morality that has seen its moral authority erode considerably in the last few years in the wake of one scandal after another.  Like the rest of us, our priests are human, and their sexual and financial indiscretions should be measured and judged by the same legal and moral standards as those applied to the rest of us, if not more stringent standards altogether. More importantly, however, true healing between the Church and its disillusioned faithful can only begin with real accountability, not the summary sweeping under the rug that the Church all around the world has done with most, if not all of the indiscretions of its clerics.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this book should have been an important piece of investigative journalism, but because Rufo drops the ball on too many occasions, it just feels like a wasted opportunity. Fortunately for Rufo, deconstructing the Catholic Church is very much en vogue these days and therefore his book is quite likely to find an audience, one which, I hope, can grasp the important message diluted by his consistent soap-box lectures and his muddled prose.

Or in the alternative, one positive offshoot of this book could be that another, better-written one may one day come along.


No comments: