The aftermath of last week’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake resulted in unimaginable death and destruction in the Visayas region of the Philippines. Many lives were lost and properties were left in ruins. Amongst the many ruins are centuries-old Catholic churches that have been designated as “national cultural treasures”, “national historic landmarks”, or “heritage sites”. In Bohol alone, seven “heritage” churches have been estimated to need around Php700 million for reconstruction costs (around Php100 million for each church). President Noynoy Aquino said that the government could not fund the heritage churches due to the “separation of Church and State”. However, the Philippines has a law that mandates the government to provide for priority funding for protection, conservation and restoration of cultural properties declared as National Cultural Treasures and national historic landmarks. Whether Aquino’s statement came out from ignorance of the law or merely from just being careful not to commit to the reconstruction of all churches outside of the scope of the National Cultural Heritage Act as Palace Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte seems to suggest, is another topic. This article will focus on whether it is a good idea for the government to shoulder the cost of rebuilding and restoring “heritage churches” or not.
The National Cultural Heritage Act defines “cultural property” as:
“all products of human creativity by which a people and a nation reveal their identity, including churches, mosques and other places of religious worship, schools and natural history specimens and sites, whether public or privately-owned, movable or immovable, and tangible or intangible”.
The law provides that a private citizen may still retain ownership of a property (unless the private owner turns over the property to the State) but it is the role of the government to declare the heritage value of the structure and to provide for its protection and preservation. Now here’s a question: Would it be right to force people to pay for the protection and preservation of the SM Mall of Asia Promenade? If it doesn’t make sense for the public to be taxed in order to pay for the private property of someone who gets exclusive profits or benefits out of the private property, why would it make sense for everyone to pay for a church where it is exclusively owned and used by a particular religious group? (e.g. Catholics) If a storm were to destroy the SM Mall of Asia Promenade, we expect the owners of SM to spend for its repair and restoration, why can’t the Catholic Church pay for their damaged Churches?
Aaahh yes… the difference is that these centuries-old churches are part of our culture and the preservation of these churches would ensure that we continue to celebrate our culture. A friend of mine has brought out an interesting point. A lot of these centuries-old churches are part of our history under the Encomienda system and forced labor required upon us by our Spanish (Catholic) conquerors. And we consider these cultural representations as “treasures”? At least malls like the SM Mall of Asia, which by the way, are very much a big part of the modern pop culture, provides free airconditioning and entertainment to everyone regardless of status, race, color, or religious creed!
The way I see it, the government paying for the cost of rebuilding and restoring these “heritage churches” is tantamount to a bailout of the Catholic Church. If these “heritage churches” were State-owned and if the Catholic Church does not have exclusive rights to the use of these churches for its exclusive ceremonies, then it should be fine. But if it is privately owned (i.e. owned by the Catholic Church), then the owners should be the ones primarily responsible for their property’s restoration and maintenance costs. Look, the average poor taxpaying schmuck won’t get a lick of a chance getting bailed out of the cost of restoring a personal property destroyed by an earthquake. Why should the Catholic Church in the Philippines be bailed out despite it’s wealth? And what do taxpayers get out of the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of bailout to the Catholic Church? Would they at least get a decrease in “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” they have to recite when they commit a sin? Can we even really expect that all of the taxpayer money allocated for the restoration of the ruined properties will end up in the project and not the pockets of politicians, given the rotten culture of corruption we have in government? I think much like most government bailouts, the taxpayers would again get the shaft.
Sure, one can argue that these “heritage churches” can help create jobs and propel the local economy through tourism. But even if we highlight the importance of tourism, why is it necessary to spend so much money to fully restore these “heritage churches” to promote tourism when we can still attract tourists featuring these properties as ruins of structures of antiquity? You know… kind of like the ruins we have at various tourist sites like the Cagsawa Church in Bicol, the Fort Santiago in Intramuros, or even the Roman Colosseum and the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures in Greece, which despite being damaged by neglect, man-made and natural causes, are still visited by many tourists every year. I think there is value in considering alternative and more cost-effective options if taxpayer money shall be used.
On a fair and pragmatic view, I do not think it is a good idea for the government to shoulder the full (or even the majority of the) cost of rebuilding and restoring the ruined “heritage churches”, especially if these are not State-owned properties. If we cannot expect the government to bailout the average contributing taxpayer from financial ruin caused by property destruction due to the recent massive earthquake, why should the government bailout a religious organization that doesn’t even pay any taxes? I think it is time to revise the National Cultural Heritage Act and make it more sensible and fair.[Photo courtesy International Business Times.]
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