An untoward award?

An untoward award?

MANY UST alumni must have lately felt like being hit by a train. The controversy involving USTAAI, an independent (so says the university) alumni association linked to the University of Santo Tomas, giving an award to an undersecretary of presidential communications, an alumna, for government service, has sparked outrage. There was no question on the recipient’s alumna status. Nor is her being a high government official in doubt. What particularly distresses critics, both alumni and non-alumni of the institution, is the recipient’s association with “fake news” and its dissemination, not to mention her use of “hate” and “vulgar” language against administration critics especially on social media. The student council, mainstream students, the university press organ and many alumni inside and outside the country, including former award recipients, insist that she is not only undeserving but may even be antagonistic to the institution’s core values. Non-alumni may find this last beyond them.

But allow me some considerations.

One, UST is obviously a Catholic institution. The university administration, student council, press and its so-called independent organizations or associations, including the USTAAI, are certainly not independent of Catholic values. For instance, it is a clear teaching of the Catholic Church: “Users (of social communications) should practice discipline and moderation in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences…They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation” (Catechism of the
Catholic Church, nn. 2496-2497). That an alumna of a Catholic university, with a grave responsibility as a presidential communications secretary, is perceived as “the main purveyor of politically-motivated propaganda against known members of the government’s opposition, and an avid spreader of fake news” (words of the UST Central Student Council) in itself is beyond sad. Not even pre-Christian Caesar’s wife would tolerate a mere perception of impropriety. What more a Catholic university’s alumni association. The university’s core values of “compassion, competence and commitment” are surely not in lieu, but in the service of, its Catholic identity.

Two, it is commendable that the university respects the alumni association’s independence by non-interference. It is also understandable, considering the many other complex aspects of university life. But in instances such as this where Catholic (by that I mean the fullness of what the term ‘Christian’ means) commitment to truth, justice and the common good are at stake, a Catholic university must also exercise its prophetic role and oppose what is clearly against its values. In the words of Charles Peguy: “He who does not bellow the truth makes himself an accomplice of liars and forgers.”

Three, the undersecretary is not the enemy but what she espouses and practices. But it helps no one when everyone swims in the quagmire and throws mud against those who first did so. Other than constantly pray for our conversion, hers and her bosses’, we show who we are by pointing out in charity where and how she errs, and that she serves the nation and herself best if she changes in the direction of God’s ways. Truth does not deserve being delivered on the platter of hate. That would be playing the game of the arch Enemy who, as we all know, is the “father of lies” and “author of hate”. We protest. But we don’t stoop below who we are called to be. For, as St. Augustine declares: “Nothing conquers except truth; the victory of truth is charity.”

Finally, where leaders are elected on the wave of populism, it has been observed that truth often becomes the first victim in governance. For example, it is only in our rather weirdly ordered world where strongmen are in power that we also hear of the proliferation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” (which is actually falsehood made to appear true). Two US senators have recently warned their own president over having made those terms ‘fashionable’ especially among the world’s autocratic leaders, ultimately using them to harass the media and the opposition in their own countries. Alas, how far backwards have we gone in history? And yet this apparent adversity for democracies and, especially for the Church as the bulwark of God’s truth, also presents a challenge and an opportunity to give witness. In the words of St. Athanasius: “If the world goes against the truth, then Athanasius goes against the world.”