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Political class faces values test

Are Catholic schools failing the Philippines?

Ezra Capucion recently graduated with a management degree from the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University “confident” and determined to strive to change society and test the values she learnt at school in enterprise development.

Last year, she and three fellow-Ateneans established The Twillery, during their coursework. Working with recycled paper bag-maker Lulu Ocampo, they enhanced her product with fabric lining, leather and metal fixtures. They engaged about 30 women in Natipuan community, Batangas province to weave paper sheets for the bags.

Before then, the weavers depended only on their husbands’ income. Today, they say they pay for their children’s schooling with the money they earn.



“Our business has to help people, the environment and the economy,” Ezra  explained.

For her, it all ties in with Ateneo’s goal of forming “men and women for others” sharing Christian values of their Jesuit education wherever they are “for the greater glory of God.”

All this “is not just a slogan for me.”

Ezra and her partners won an HSBC Asia Young Entrepreneur Award for their Papelle bags, but her experience was more valuable than that.

“We had to reflect on the situation of people and communities, but I did not want to only think. I wanted to do something about it,” she told

Ezra’s motivation and dedication to the good of society reflect the Catholic values of her schooling but some say stories like hers are still in the minority.

Between 2006-2009, most graduates from her campus who responded to surveys reported they had gone into banking and finance, computer and information technology, manufacturing and business process outsourcing sectors.

Only 12 percent went into the social development sector. Specifically, 6.5 percent went on to work in the academe, 3.6 percent in government, and 1.8 percent took up NGO work. Roughly 88 percent joined the industrial sector.

Why is the Philippines so dysfunctional?

And, if most of the country’s leaders have been educated in Catholic schools, why then is Philippines society so dysfunctional under the lead of Catholic school graduates, observers ask.

Dominican Father Rolando de la Rosa,  president of the Association of Catholic Universities of the Philippines and rector of the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas  (UST), acknowledges the paradox.

He suggests that economics plays a part in the choice between starting at once on a well-paid career and a life of service.

Most of the country’s 40,000 students at UST are middle or lower middle class, he points out, so many of them aspire to improve their living conditions right after college graduation.

The goal of Catholic schools is to produce “men and women of service” he says and the schools provide the coursework to support it. They teach moral and other theology classes, hold Masses and recollections, administer sacraments and provide chaplain services.

But that can only achieve so much. Students and the school community must also engage with a variety of sectors and communities.

Even some Catholic teachers acknowledge that past pupils do not always put what they have learned into practice.

Jesuit Father Romeo Intengan,  who lectures on morals and ethics, admits the Philippines political system shows “a chronic inability to effectively attend to society’s economic and cultural problems.” This “deeply dysfunctional” society which has caused “a major worsening of the quality of life of its members” is fueling discontent, he says.

By any measure the country has failed its most vulnerable. Nearly 21 percent of Filipino families or 26.5 percent of the population live in poverty, social inequality has prevailed, corruption is rampant and charges of human rights violations by the state are common.



The country’s immediate-past president Gloria Arroyo and her successor (and another Catholic school graduate) Benigno Aquino III have both disappointed fellow Catholics.

Vince Enriquez of Couples for Christ Catholic group has long highlighted the Arroyo administration’s dismal corruption record finding it “ironic” when most government and elected officials studied in “prestigious schools run by nuns, priests and religious orders” that “failed to instill good sense in hearts and minds of their graduates.”

Four impeachment complaints were filed against Arroyo, including complaints of graft and bribery, betrayal of public trust and violation of the Constitution, although her political allies made sure they didn’t go ahead.

While Aquino has not been tainted by corruption, his performance has disappointed Catholic leaders in another way.

His support for the reproductive health bill, including promotion of artificial birth control, even prompted Father Jerry Oblepias, director of San Pablo diocese’s Family Life Ministry to call him a “bad Catholic” whose “conscience is not formed.” A president misled into “easy and lazy ways” of solving poverty, the priest said.

But Aquino political ally (and Ateneo graduate) Ana Theresia (Risa) Hontiveros-Baraquel believes that is to look at the question from the wrong perspective.

Ateneans, she noted, hold varied positions on moral issues, such as reproductive health, because of their education and the way professors taught “critical thinking”.

“I don’t know why after Catholic schools form our conscience, we aren’t allowed to use it,” she says.



Father de la Rosa acknowledges some failure in the moral education of Catholic schools’ charges, but says it is unfair to place all the blame on them.

“The Catholic university is only one factor in the total formation of the individual,” he says.

Unlesss family, Church, and government work with schools, Catholic education cannot transform society, says the priest, a former chairperson of the government’s Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

In the age of globalization and material and moral poverty, “What values students learn in school are contradicted by what they see in their families, in media and situations outside school,” he says.

Some see the problem lying in education system itself where education is only compulsory up to high school and the heavy lifting in education is left to private schools.

“We (private schools) are the biggest providers of professionals to society at no cost to government and we get no support from government,” Father de la Rosa says. “That’s the biggest anomaly in the Philippines.”

But with annual tuition fees ranging from 79,000 pesos to 200,000 pesos (US$1,800-$4,600) access to top Catholic colleges and universities is limited to the realtively well-off. This reduces the opportunity for people from poorer sectors to gain positions of influence in society.

Congress has become ‘landlord’ territory

As a result, the Philippines Congress has come to be known as landlord territory.

Father de la Rosa believes that the government should subsidize private school fees rather than putting money into lower quality state institutions.

He is also critical of the Church hierarchy, which could do more to help Catholic schools, he says.

“When a Catholic school faces problems, for example with unions demanding too much, bishops do not even issue any statement of support for the schools. Many Catholic schools have closed down because of these problems.”

A lack of parental supervision also leaves young people vulnerable, Father de la Rosa says. Nearly half of more than 2,000 youths surveyed for the McCann Erickson 2006 inter-generation study on the youth reported that they lived away from one or both parents, with 23 percent living without the company of any parent.

Without the guidance at home, most spent more time on technology-related activities after school than sports or face-to-face socializing.

“With diminishing family life, many students turn to television, Internet, ‘barkada’ (buddies), drugs and boyfriends. Teachers now also serve as surrogate parents, guidance counselor,” and similar roles, Father de la Rosa says.

Ateneo graduate Ezra Capucian says that parents’ absence is not all bad.

Young people study harder than before

“There were times I felt bad when I was younger, but I eventually understood they (parents) had to be somewhere else to work, and now we live comfortably,” the award-winning young entrepreneur said.

Her situation drove her to be independent and spend wisely money her parents work hard for. It also helps one tackle challenges once outside the comfort of school or home.

The data tend to support that view. The survey reported that young people spend more time studying than they have in the past. Most of them reported practical reasons summarized as “learning is equivalent to earning.”

In moral formation, Father de la Rosa says that teachers have vital role to play as well. He cites reports about some faculty members’ stand that differs from the official position of the Church hierarchy on social issues. He said he is not surprised that graduates favor contraception when their teachers do the same and wonders why bishops are not “more vocal in criticizing Catholic schools that are not toeing the line.”

But a former Ateneo president highlights the occasional conflict between following Church principles and teaching critical thinking.

Jesuit Father Bienvenido Nebres, before stepping down as university president, said that a group of teachers who backed the reproductive health bill did not speak for the university. The school leadership, he says, “stands with our Church leaders in raising questions about and objections [to the bill].”

Nevertheless, he expressed appreciation for the faculty members’ “efforts to grapple with serious social issues.”

While Ateneo de Manila, as a Jesuit and Catholic university, ensures teaching Catholic faith and morals in classes Father Nebres reiterated the school’s support for critical study and discussion.

Looking forward, Father de la Rosa sees some concrete steps that can help Catholic schools better to fulfill their mission.

First, he says, there is a need to expand access to education and break the cycle of poverty.  He supports a genuine “Ladderized” education program, where student can progress from technical studies to a degree course.





“We need to refocus from the diploma to practical application of skills and learning,” the ex-CHED head said.

Opening technical-vocational schools allows poor students or those who have dropped out to go to school while employed. Their work experience is given corresponding academic credits that enhance employment value.

Schools could continue to tap more alumni like Ezra and members of the entire school community for a concerted response to poverty, social inequality, corruption and other social ills.

UST education department teachers, for example, conduct distance literacy classes to displaced indigenous Aeta people in Tarlac Province using two-way radio. Teachers in its engineering department built the transmitter on the university campus in Manila and installed a receiver in the Tarlac community not reached by electricity.

Architecture department teachers and faculty help build houses for Aeta families and doctors and nurses from the medicine and health-related departments hold clinics in the community.

Its social sciences and journalism department members are researching on the impact of overseas work on local communities.

But while various schools’ initiatives are helpful, they are not enough to transform the downtrodden society, Father Intengan says. Transformation will not take place until there is an overhaul, a total reconstruction, of government.

“What needs to be clarified for most of our people is the direction and manner of change – what societal model and form of government to aim at constructing, and what means are to be used to pursue that aim,” Father Intengan said.

Graduates can be more effective change agents when they develop a worldview, “an idea of utopia,” a clear model of society and strategies and tactics.

N.J. Viehland is’s writer-at-large in the Philippines