Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nuns, bishop in the casino

What were they doing there? How did they get there? Who brought them there? Why were they there? What did they think their presence there would mean? Are they a new breed?

These were some of the questions asked by those who saw, on television, nuns trying out what looked like slot machines in the casino at the “Las Vegas”-to-be strip along Manila Bay.

Also present was Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias who gave the occasion an ecclesiastical feel.

Even the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) didn’t quite know how to react, but did react anyway by saying, through its spokesman Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, that the CBCP was not going to do anything, by way of censure perhaps, in relation to the presence of one its members in a gambling setting. Quitorio however did say that it was something the CBCP did not approve of.

Individual bishops are heads of their own ecclesiastical territories and are independent of the CBCP. They are accountable only to the Pope and their own constituencies. The most a bishop might get from his fellow bishops would be fraternal reminders. Individual bishops do not take orders from the CBCP, except perhaps when, as members, they must take heed and act as a collegial body.

And what about the nuns? Although most, if not all, heads of religious congregations in the country are members of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (for women and men), these congregations are independent of the AMRSP and don’t need the AMRSP’s yes or no.

Now, I don’t know if the nuns (I think they’re called Servants of the Eucharist) who went to the casino had asked the approval of their Provincial Superior (their head in the country) or only of the head of their convent for this extraordinary activity. But that is a private, congregational matter.

What matters now is how these nuns’ presence was interpreted and how they are now perceived by the public. Several seconds on television could say a lot. Would they have a chance to explain?

Their joyful presence in the gambling milieu could be interpreted as approval of the culture of gambling, and it does not matter that the milieu is mainly for tourists and Filipinos with a lot of extra money.

And how might they be perceived? The kindest thing I heard was that these nuns were perhaps naïve. And naïve, translated in Filipino, does not sound kind at all.

In this day and age when nuns, the Filipino variety in particular, continue to blaze trails in the church and society, the word naïve cannot be used as a sweeping generalization to describe Filipino nuns.

During the early part of the martial-law years, it was the religious, the nuns among them, who were in the forefront. Not the mitered and sceptered members of the hierarchy some of whom preferred to first try out the so-called “critical collaboration” mode. In contrast, many nuns strode into the wilderness right away to search for the lost and the lifeless and give strength to those who feared for their lives. That was their defining moment and they surely now have a place in the nation’s history.

So, do we now make a stinging condemnation of some church persons’ subtle approval of casinos through their presence? Maybe a not-so-gentle reminder would do, a reminder urging them to be in the habit of using the brain, the heart, the gut. That already says a lot. To say more than that would be to presume they are stupid. And they are not.

As the Benedictine nun who conducted our short and sweet Lenten recollection two days ago said, “Use your tantya-meter.”

In 1996, the CBCP came out with a statement on the proposed legalization of jueteng. It did not condemn gambling per se but judged gambling on the basis of its effects on people, even as it acknowledged the positive value of wholesome recreation done in moderation.

In 2000, Fr. Luis Hechanova, CSSR wrote in the Inquirer an essay on gambling as a dilemma for both the church and the state. (This was one of his essays in the book “Church, Politics and Transformation” that his friends published after he died in 2001.)

There are three aspects associated with gambling that influence its morality. These are recreation, addiction and excess.

Of gambling as recreation. “Catholic moral theology acknowledges the principle that the Good Lord has given human beings the opportunity of enjoying with moderation the little pleasures that accompany a normal human life. Thus, used with moderation, a game of cards or mahjong may be morally acceptable activities of persons and contribute to their relaxation and well-being.”

I know of a handful of senior nuns from different places who come together once every few months to play canasta. No bets of course, just laughter and updates on their joys and joints.

Gambling as addiction:“Unfortunately, many forms of gambling tend to be addictive. That is, people get hooked on excess. What is okay for some people as a form of recreation may not be good for those who get addicted and cannot stop.”

As excess: “Certain forms of gambling involve not only thousands but millions of pesos. High stake mahjong (was) played in the presidential yacht… Not all pragmatic reasons are acceptable. They must be used, not primarily for some benefit to government or charitable institutions just for the sake of raising funds, but for the common good, especially in favor of the poor, as is done in most civilized countries of the world.”

Even if, for the sake of argument, casino earnings went to some of Mother Teresa’s charities, I doubt if the saintly nun would like to be caught on TV trying out the slot machines.