Ateneo and the Church

Can Ateneo de Manila University call itself a Catholic school and function as a university at the same time? A question like this may strike Filipinos as somewhat strange, considering that many of our venerable universities are Catholic institutions. Yet, it is bound to arise when the ideas of professors in such institutions clash with the teachings of those in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the question is almost inevitable. Every university worth its name, regardless of who established it, will assert its autonomy in the pursuit of knowledge. One expects no less from Ateneo as a university.

Out of respect for the university’s academic freedom, the Church might have quietly tolerated the manifestation of dissent by Ateneo’s faculty while calling for dialogue. But it chose to draw the line on the Reproductive Health bill, sternly demanding absolute conformity with its pronouncements. The costs to Ateneo de Manila University are incalculable.

A Church that insists on total conformity with its institutional position on social issues, and threatens to investigate or expel those who disagree with it, risks inciting a backlash from its affiliated universities. The academe operates solely under the norm of reasoned debate, and the only force that true scholars respect is the force of the better argument. A university that commands its faculty to think alike is a shame to all academic life. In demanding from the faculty of Ateneo total submission to its anti-RH line, out of fidelity to its beliefs, the Church risks destroying the very thing that makes Ateneo a university—respect for reason.

The Church might learn from the way the state has dealt with a fiercely independent University of the Philippines. Though the state funds the operations of the university, and appoints its president and regents, it refrains from interfering in the work of the institution. It recognizes and guarantees the university’s right to academic freedom. Beyond professing fidelity to the nation and its Constitution, which is expected of every citizen, UP is expected to chart its own course.

Indeed, there have been countless times when the ideas of UP professors and students openly clashed with the policies and decisions of government. And there have been times when a public official threatened to cut the university budget because of the defiant stance taken by its faculty and students on crucial public issues. One of the darkest periods in the life of UP was when left-leaning professors were subjected by Congress to humiliating investigations for so-called “anti-Filipino” activities. None of these vicious witch hunts succeeded in stifling free expression in the university. On the contrary, they unified the nation in defense of the scholar who stood solely on the power of his ideas.

The burden of negotiating a middle ground has always fallen on the university administrator who must unite the university in the defense of its autonomy, while ensuring its survival as it negotiates its complex relationships with the other domains of society. This reality is brought home to every UP president every year whenever it is time to face the gods of Congress to justify the UP budget.

But, I do not know of a time when the UP administration left its faculty and students in the lurch. UP’s student and faculty councils are notorious for issuing statements and rallying on a wide range of issues at the drop of a hat, often carrying UP’s name even when they reflect only the views of some faculty members. So far as I can remember, UP seldom spoke as one institution, but, certainly, when it did, it was never to contradict the views of its own faculty or students. Even when a UP president disagreed with the opinions and methods of any of his constituents, he would always defend their right to express themselves.

While Ateneo’s situation may not exactly be analogous to that of UP, at least in the sense that it is not dependent on Church funding as UP is on government funds, I could sense the extreme difficulty with which the Ateneo president, Fr. Jett Villarin, grappled with the dilemma of being a university and being affiliated with the Church at the same time. As president of the university, and as a scholar himself, he could not bring himself to castigate the Ateneo professors who openly broke with the Church’s position on the RH bill. Yet, as the head of a Catholic institution and as a priest himself, he had to align himself with the position of the bishops. This delicate balancing act saw him speaking for the entire Ateneo, sounding more like the head of a corporate body than as the leader of an intellectual community.

“Together with our leaders in the Catholic Church,” Father Villarin said in his memo, “the Ateneo de Manila University does not support the passage of House Bill 4244. As many of these leaders have pointed out, the present form of the proposed bill contains provisions that could be construed to threaten constitutional rights as well as to weaken commonly shared human and spiritual values.” He then turned to the 192 faculty members who have expressed support for the bill: “Though the University must differ from their position for the reasons stated above, I appreciate their social compassion and intellectual efforts, and urge them to continue in their discernment of the common good.” The statement does not disown them, but neither does it signal any readiness to protect them from persecution. I can’t imagine the effect of this on the faculty’s morale.

I am aware of how strongly the Church feels about this issue. Still, I am astounded by the length to which some of its leaders are prepared to go to test their authority over Church-affiliated institutions.

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