Monday, March 24, 2014

The bishops and poverty

by Denis Murphy

People who are engaged in work with the poor were happy that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines devoted its Lenten message to the subject of poverty under the title “Poverty that Dehumanizes, Poverty that Sanctifies.” The bishops are inviting people to reflect on poverty following the lead of Pope Francis, whose own Lenten message takes its inspiration from St. Paul writing about Jesus Christ: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you may become rich.” (2 Cor 8-9)

There are many things to admire in the CBCP letter, but the reference to the Pope’s letter invites us to compare it with his writings. When we do, some differences are apparent. The Pope’s writings, especially “The Joy of the Gospel” (his encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium”), leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that a flesh-and-blood person with a passion for the poor and a good knowledge of the world of the poor is writing. On the other hand, our CBCP letter—let us be honest—is austere to a fault. This lack of attention to style, passion and joy is surprising in a Church that has had artists like Palestrina and Mozart enrich its Masses and writers like St. Augustine and Cardinal Newman explain its mysteries. Not by concepts alone does man (or woman) live, but by all the forces of their beings—emotion, compassion, energy, poetry, clear thinking and excitement.

The bishops single out in their message a specific problem for criticism, which is the current practice of privatizing and relocating public hospitals. “The poor, who can avail [themselves] of health care at only public hospitals and local government health centers, are at risk of being further excluded from access to basic health care with the proposed privatization of leading public health institutions such as the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital and the National Orthopedic Hospital. Especially vulnerable are children and the elderly, unless government continues to aspire for the ideal of ‘universal health coverage.’”

We can add to the bishops’ list of affected hospitals the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), which, in the plan of the current lords of the North Triangle—Ayala Land, the National Housing Authority, and the Quezon City government—is about to be privatized and moved to the Lung Center compound. The PCMC and the Manila Seedling Bank alongside it are the latest institutions to be removed by the lords in what looks like a march to control the entire North Triangle for themselves.

On Feb 20 Fr. Robert Reyes led a protest march against this plan, along with the PCMC doctors and nurses and the Seedling Bank workers. Father Robert and the doctors who spoke at the rally said the plan would seriously harm the treatment that poor children receive. They protested the proposed relocation of the PCMC to the Lung Center compound. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any place more unsuitable for sick children than a lung hospital. The government would be wise to listen to its professionals who are willing to march for what they believe is good for their patients, and to men of God, including the bishops and Father Robert.

The speakers raised related issues, such as how much land should one company be allowed to control. Ayala Land is already partnered with NHA and Quezon City in Trinoma and Vertis North, and now they seek the land of the Seedling Bank and the PCMC. What limit on land must society set to ensure that the common good is maintained?

Thus, the problem of privatizing public hospitals leads to questions about the ownership and use of land in our cities, which in turn lead to economic questions of inequality of income and joblessness and political questions on democracy’s viability in a nation of many poor and few very rich. When you reach down into the burrow and catch hold of the tail of any of these problems, you end up pulling the whole tangled mess into the daylight.

If there are no controls or limits on land use, we can end up in a city of malls, condos, movie houses and supermarkets owned by a handful of very rich men. We will sadly lack seed banks, playing fields, places for old people to sit and watch children play, trees, quiet shady places for children’s hospitals, open-air art galleries, and housing for poor people. The same men or class of men will own the hospitals, public utilities, and even some mayors.

An excellent article in this paper by Kenneth Cardenas (“Cash-crop condominiums,” Talk of the Town, 2/16/14) explains how our problems, such as the eviction of poor people and hospitals, joblessness, land monopolies, disregard of urban planning and the common good are interconnected. At the center of the problems are the large real estate groups, including the Ayalas, SM, Robinsons and Eton Properties.
The problems are all connected, so we can start anywhere to unravel and solve them.

Why don’t we join the bishops in an effort to end the privatization of hospitals? If the bishops decide to act on their position on privatization, they will find many groups willing to work with them, especially, I believe, the urban poor, who need the public hospitals for health services.

If the bishops have a plan, they can invite various groups to join them, including the poor. If they plan a large mass, a rally, or a march, the poor will be happy to join. Actually, the bishops themselves don’t have to formulate a plan; they can leave that to others. They will have done a great deal by identifying a problem and gathering people to solve it. It’s probably better if the bishops don’t make the plan.

Such teamwork may carry over into future efforts. The lived experience of working with the poor may add to the bishops’ writings on poverty the passion and joy that are sometimes missing in their pastoral statements.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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