Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Life As A Minority In Asia's Vatican City
Years ago, I needed to go to the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) to file something-or-other. It pains me to have to go through this country's bureaucratic, uhm, processes, but some things are just unavoidable. I remember going mid-afternoon because of the stifling heat, and wanted to minimize my exposure to it. (I'm one of those unfortunate beings who, when attempting to get a tan by the beach, end up being red and prickly all over, then going back to my original color. No tan.)
The guard directed me to the main office where the general transactions are filtered. I forget now if there was a queue or a number system, but I was waiting to be served. Suddenly, there was an announcement over the PA (public announcement) system, saying "It is now 3 O'Clock. Please stand up for our midday prayer."
Dumbfounded, I searched for the insignia that said "Republic of the Philippines - Bureau of Internal Revenue."
I was in the right place, at a government office that I needed to be in.
Why was I suddenly in the middle of a prayer meeting?
This is my life as a non-Catholic, in what has long been touted as "the only Catholic nation in Asia".
Back at the BIR, most everyone stood up, and recited what seemed to me like a rehearsed prayer, but apparently something they've been doing all their lives, because even as they "prayed", some were combing their hair, some were passing snacks around, still others were fiddling with their computers or documents on the table, all while "praying". Talk about multitasking.
There were 2 other people in that area who also remained seated, like me. Our eyes glanced at each other, and I remember the older gentleman shrugging his shoulders as our eyes met, as if to say "Wala tayong magagawa." ("We can't do anything.") We obviously were the non-Catholics in the room, and saw no reason to pray - certainly not a prayer that wasn't one of our choosing or one we didn't even know the words to!
This exclusion from the religious majority is something that I have had to deal with all my life. I have never been a Catholic, nor had the desire to be one, even though we lived in a village that had their more-than-plain-pious Catholic badge stamped all over. The village church would always broadcast its' prayers so that the entire neighborhood could hear them, and when the announcer always came to the part that said "pray for us, now and in the hour of our death", my mom would always cast a frown, because in the religion that we were taught, once you're dead, no more intercessions can be made, you will be judged on how you lived, period. She would always say that if we could "pray our way into heaven", then there really is no point in doing/being good, because people on earth could still "pray" for you to get into heaven anyway, which made a lot of sense to me back then, and even until now.
I was pretty much shielded from the exclusion up until my high school years, because we went to a conservative Protestant school, and boy, was religion pounded into us rigorously. We had Sunday school, church services, one of our required subjects was Bible class, and every school activity started with prayers, invocations, and a smattering of Bible readings and verses. As you can tell, I was never a stranger to religious indoctrination or preaching. So I am well aware when a religion is trying to extend its' influence in my life.
Only when I entered college did I slowly but surely start feeling that I was a very small part in the religious mix of this country. As is the case with most freshman classes, they usually assign "blocks" which made sure that you would have the same classmates subject after subject. When they started introducing themselves, they were all from Saint something-or-other school. And there would be the ever-present "preachers", who would ask if I wanted to join them in Bible study or some prayer meeting (I don't really know what it was called). Whenever the block would meet socially or for homework/assignments, there would be a rosary and a corresponding prayer present. One of them asked why I didn't seem to be praying, and when I said that I wasn't Catholic and I didn't know what they were praying, she said, "Oh...that's right. You're a Protestant." Then she looked at me with a mixture of pity and ridicule.
Outside of school, in other social gatherings like parties of our relatives, the same thing would happen over and over. Most of my relatives are Catholics, and we would be forced to go along with whatever rituals it was that they did.
The biggest difference between what I experienced in my formative years in school, and now that I have become the minority, is that the Protestant indoctrination happened in a private setting, either in a church or a school that was clearly affiliated with that religion. And my parents chose that school - children don't really have a say yet where to study in the elementary and high school years - it was freely chosen out of their own religious convictions.
It was, therefore, a big surprise that even in a supposedly non conformist and secular environment such as UP (the University of the Philippines), the Catholic influence is so pervasive and intrusive so as to force people to do things that are clearly counter to one's religious convictions or preferences. True, it wasn't a police state situation, where there were armed guards ready to beat the daylights out of me if I failed to pray a rosary. But the ensuing judgement and pressure to act Catholic - in appearance only, which is what truly matters - is something even more potent than if it were a stick threatening to beat me for not conforming.
A well-meaning (Catholic) friend did listen to me harping on this point, and her response was something that I have heard countless times as the "bleeding heart" response: "I know it's hard, pero ano ba naman mawawala sayo kung mag rosaryo ka, o magpakitang tao ka na nagdadasal ka din? Ilang minuto lang naman yun, tapos back to regular programming na, diba?" ("I know it's hard, but what will you lose if you do the rosary, or just show people that you are also praying, just for show? After a few minutes, we're back to regular programming, right?")
I suppose I could let it "slide", but what about the concept of freedom of religion?
Last I looked, we have a Constitution that guarantees that "no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion" and "no religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights". (Section 5, Article 3, Bill of Rights, 1987 Philippine Constitution. See http://www.chanrobles.com/article3.htm for full entry.)
Which is what has been weighing on my mind as a response to that: Why should I be forced to do it? Why should I be forced to follow Catholic doctrine when I am not a Catholic by faith nor choice?
In the current debates about the RH (Reproductive Health) Bill, it is rather clear to me that despite all the secular arguments that the anti-RH camp has come up with, the "fire" that keeps them burning with the intensity to oppose the RH Bill is because their religion (and religious leaders) dictates to them that artificial contraception is "immoral". Note, however, that they are not against contraception per se - withdrawal, rhythm method, abstinence, there are all forms of contraception. (For those foaming at the mouth at this last sentence, kindly check the meaning of the word "contraception", because it includes any method that prevents the sperm from meeting the egg.) So, as long as the kind of contraception has the "Catholic-approved" seal stamped on it, they see nothing "wrong".
This intrusion has gone far enough.
The "fire" that gives me my intensity to fight for the RH Bill is because this is symptomatic of what I have had to fight for all my life: The freedom to choose my own religion, and be free from attempts to undermine that choice, by clerics who would have their religious doctrines - Catholic, of course - be inscribed into law, subverting the concept of freedom of religion. This is essentially what the battle lines have become: Which side will you be on? One which honors and respects everyone's religious preferences, and even the absence of one, as not everyone needs religion to have a fulfilling, meaningful life? Or the side that forcefully abrogates a singular religious doctrine, so that all will be forced to follow, regardless of religious preference?
I was never against Catholicism. I still am not. (Even though I find its mysogynistic and homophobic stances horrible.) Most of my friends are Catholics. This doesn't hamper our friendships because they have never sought to forcefully induct me into their religion, neither do I wish for them to change their religions because I don't share the same one as theirs. We live and let live.
But when my rights as a non-Catholic are being readied to be trampled on, you can expect me to be uncompromising in defending my rights to the last. Stay out of my life, religious or otherwise. Why can't we learn to respect each other's preferences? Are tolerance and respect such alien and difficult concepts, that men who claim to be the arbiters of morality cannot comprehend them on any given level?
Until the day that we officially turn into a Catholic theocracy, I will not be silenced.