Sunday, January 30, 2011

How secular really is the University of the Philippines?

If this isn't a Christian religious metaphor,
then I don't know what Christianity is!
The Anglican Use Society Philippines prays regularly in the University of the Philippines Parish of the Holy Sacrifice. The society which is composed of Catholics and Anglicans meet once a month for prayer with intentions for the country, the world at large and the university.

After the prayers, the members hardly talk much about religion but various issues that affect Philippine society.Of course this is seen through the lens of Christian experience but recently the topic on secularism has popped especially in this debate about reproductive health which the Catholic hierarchy opposes.

Our Anglican cleric, the Reverend Dr Father Joe Frary who in his first visit to the church wanted to see if the main church was full. So he asked if he can join the Catholics for Mass. And he was amazed that the whole church was filled and most of the worshipers were students. And this was not Sunday Mass but just the regular weekday Mass.

The Reverend Father immediately concluded that the secularist agenda advocated by some vocal Filipinos is doomed. He rightly concluded that in the Philippines "there is really no space for the secular" and that for harmony in a multi-religious society we have to keep secular appearances! And I concurred that this would work since Filipinos are really religious but their religiosity is tolerant. Sects that preach an "exclusive" faith are really imports and are imports from America!

One of the myths that we have to bust is that of UP being a "godless" university. At UP God is all over, what differs is how people see God. For instance there is a student organization of atheists. They are accepted even if they see God nowhere! And that is what makes UP such an interesting place to study religion! It is only at UP where you find a Marxist attending Mass on a daily basis. In fact one of the pastors at the Protestant church in campus once proposed a religious studies center as part of the university. Rev Frary thinks this is sensible since in this country, religion plays a large part. I have to admit that studying it should be not in a sectarian setting but in the setting of a secular university.

The UP's first Board of Regents had the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, The Most Reverend Jeremias Harty sitting as a regent. But the Archbishop was not assigned in things dealing with curricula and teaching at all. He was tasked on improving the University's infrastructure and did not impose a Catholic presence on campus. A secular appearance was thus maintained. Abp Harty's appointment did not draw controversy.

The third President Dr Guy Potter Benton was a Doctor of Theology and an ordained minister. He incurred controversy not because of his religious beliefs or affiliation but due to his attempts to impose a higher standard of scholarship in the university, managing a budget cut and reforming the tenure system. The UP's problems on academic standards is still the problem hounding the university in 2011!

In the 1950s, Dr Gumersindo Garcia sat as a regent. He was a prime mover in the Protestant ministry and the Protestant church in UP has its pastoral center named in his honor. He persuaded the Regents to allow the building of a Protestant chapel on campus in 1954. In 1955, the Catholics has their Church of the Holy Sacrifice which is now a national treasure because all the architects and artists involved in its construction and appointments became National Artists.

It was in the 1950s when the most memorable clash between the secular and the religious happened. Fr John Delaney SJ who was instrumental in building the Catholic chapel, drew controversy for his involvement in student catholic action whose members  backed candidates for the student council elections. This was seen as political meddling by a cleric.

The UP is a secular university but it maintains that for appearances only. Another member of the society Ren Aguila (an Ateneo alum) credits the UP community for being honest in not denying the religiosity of the students, faculty, staff, alumni and residents of the university. So we had to tell Fr Frary that if one really wants to see a real secular university, one has to cross Katipunan Road to Ateneo! In Ateneo, the Catholic chapel rarely gets filled to the rafters by students. And Ren quipped that Ateneo has religious appearances but really is secular, the opposite of UP!

Some university rituals are almost copies of Vatican practices. In the election of the new UP President, the Board of Regents goes into closed door session (Not much different from a conclave). In the latest election, I saw a crowd at the peristyle of Greek-inspired Quezon Hall waiting for the Board secretary to proclaim the results (not unlike what the Dean of the Cardinals does). What UP lacks is a chimney that spews smoke. It could be green for "We have a  President" and maroon "We have no President!"

And the University icon. the Oblation is really a Christian metaphor of the Crucifixion. The Roman Rite of the Mass still refers to the Sacrifice of Christ as an "oblation"!

Well as long as students are in perennial danger of flunking their courses and the chances of getting into the UPCAT lessens and lessens as each year passes, the UP will never be secular.

1 comment:

kagbalete said...

UP is secular in that the students do not allow their beliefs to influence how they view other students who do not follow the same faith. UP is also secular in that the university does not profess any allegiance to any faith and for that matter tolerates atheism ... as for the church in UP being full, i notice that most of those attending are not students or faculty of UP but those people living around UP, mostly older people....