Man of God, legal maverick keeps his faith in the law of man
By Alya Honasan
First Posted 10:29:00 05/14/2006
Published on page Q1 of the May 14, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
MORNING sunlight is dappling the leaves of the trees outside the Jesuit Residence inside the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Quezon City, and the nation’s recently christened “guru of destabilization” is basking in the almost ethereal glow, talking about good things.
“One of the reasons I joined the Jesuit order is because of their belief that man is good, and the world is good,” says Reverend Fr. Joaquin Guevarra Bernas, SJ. Then he laughs, an easy, hearty chuckle that emanates from his belly and somehow cushions this intellectual giant’s gravitas, bringing him back to earth and within our reach. “That, and the fact that we’re all really nuts.”
Hardly what you would expect from a prophet of doom, but anybody who assumes that this priest, lawyer, constitutionalist, teacher and respected amicus curiae—literally, a “friend of the courts”—is one-dimensional is destined for trouble.
Ask Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, the man who christened Bernas with the aforementioned monicker.
“No, it doesn’t irritate me,” Bernas deadpans, because no intelligent person would take Gonzalez seriously.” It must take some getting used to, we suggest, to be told to shut up after years of being asked to participate in government, and actually being invited to the Supreme Court.
Bernas can turn serious in a blink, furrowing his trademark bushy brows and peering over his glasses. “Nobody has really told me to shut up; nobody can. But that’s part of the game. When (Chief Justice Andres) Narvasa invited me to join the Supreme Court, the main reason I said no was because the only time I would be able to talk was during the decisions. And I didn’t want that.”
Bernas is very clear about the distinction between giving advice—as he often does as an amicus, an expert consulted by the courts on prickly issues—and meddling. “As far as canon law is concerned, there may be restrictions on what priests may do. But as far as civil law is concerned, when a person becomes a religious, he does not cease to be a citizen of the Philippines, and he does not shed his constitutional rights.” He shifts mood again, eyes twinkling. “And that’s why even clerics are constitutionally free to make fools of themselves.”
On a more personal level, he would rather “balance my rights as a citizen against my primary responsibility as a priest,” says Bernas, who admits that he hardly ever loses his composure. “If I feel that saying something at a certain moment may harm my own apostolic work, then I restrain myself. Or I just talk to the wall.”
Two of the words most often used to describe Bernas are “liberal” and “progressive.”
In the September 2004 edition of the Ateneo Law Journal, a tribute to Bernas refers to this man, who co-authored the 1987 Constitution and virtually drafted the Philippines’ Bill of Rights, as “The Father of Philippine Liberal Constitutionalism.” In the same tribute, Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban called him “brilliant, versatile and venerable.” The tribute was made on the occasion of Bernas’ retirement as dean of the Law School and his becoming Dean Emeritus.
“That just means I’m laos na” (washed up), he says of the new title.
The real reason Bernas joined the Jesuit order was because, in his own words, “I wanted to become a priest and something else. I didn’t want to be confined in the sacristy, because I feel the role of the priest and the Church in general is both spiritual and worldly. Christ came to save not souls, but people, and people are body and soul. He was curing the sick, feeding the hungry. And the thrust of the Church today, which is social justice, is because of the responsibility to care about the material welfare of the people also. Of course, if it’s a matter of losing something material instead of your soul—well, that’s what martyrs are. And I haven’t been given that opportunity.”
Lawyers, not Palace advisers
Yet, while he speaks freely on matters of law, Bernas has been known to remain silent on other hotly debated areas, like birth control. “Let’s put it this way: I would not talk about things on which I would not consider myself an expert. On contraception, I say, let’s talk about it in the confessional. I’m not a very judgmental person—I forgive sins easily.”
Bernas does not deny the claim that the Ateneo is an elitist institution, but he qualifies what the word may be referring to.
“Necessarily in law school we choose only the best and the brightest, because it would be a disservice to the nation to give them lawyers who are, well, Malacañang advisers,” he says with another chuckle. “But when we are working in the missions, with the poor, it’s the elitism of the excellence of service. Becoming a man or woman for others means being as good a man or woman for others as you can be.”
Bernas takes a thoughtful view of being such a man, keeping his faith while working within a very fallible legal system. “The reason I’m teaching law is because of our Lord, who came to save sinners. People criticize my having friends like (industrialist) Lucio Tan and (former President) Erap (Estrada), who don’t have very saintly reputations. Our Lord hung around with pharisees. If I had lost faith, I would have abandoned law school!
“You have to have a sense of humor,” he continues, “and accept that there are some things you cannot do anything about, even if you try. It is messy, and I see a lot of corruption, bribery. I don’t really lose sleep over things I cannot achieve, because I’m not God. I realized that long ago.”
What Bernas did realize long ago was that he wanted to heed God’s call. He was born in 1932 in Baao, Camarines Sur to a doctor and a housewife. His father died young, and his mother continued to raise her 12 children by herself. Bernas—Quining to friends, and Bernie to fellow Jesuits—was the second in the brood and one of three who would join the religious life. Two sisters became Benedictine nuns; one would be president of St. Scholastica’s while Bernas was president of the Ateneo de Manila University, from 1984 to 1993.
Bernas studied at the Ateneo de Naga, and played a lot of basketball, while reading Zane Grey westerns and the Ellery Queen and Perry Mason detective books. By the time he was in his last year of high school, he was already giving priesthood some serious thought. “The biggest influence was studying in the Ateneo. I saw a lot of young Jesuits, and the life attracted me.” The only time he had second thoughts was when he was nearing ordination, Bernas recalls. “I already had a graduate degree in law then, and I wondered, will I push through with this? And then I thought of my mother, and how she would be terribly disappointed.”
His mother was no religious fanatic, Bernas recounts, but she was a major influence on his choice of vocation. She passed away in 1984.
Although he had also considered becoming a journalist when he was younger—he has been a much-read columnist for several broadsheets, including the Inquirer—Bernas got interested in law while earning his MA in Philosophy, after teaching English and Latin at the Ateneo High School. “I enjoyed teaching, but I hated correcting papers!”
Bernas graduated from the Ateneo Law School in 1963, and was ordained a priest at the Fordham University Church in New York on June 10, 1965—the same year he completed his master’s degree in law at New York University.
Bernas zoomed in on constitutional law because of a preference for “grand views. I’m not very good with details. That’s why I find reading financial reports difficult. But there are philosophical things in constitutional law. It’s about big things, and not the nitty-gritty.”
Although he also served as Jesuit Provincial, Bernas’ true home is the Ateneo Law School, where he was dean from 1975 to 1977, and again from 2000 to 2004. He teaches constitutional law and public international law six hours a week, but gets his hands on students in their first and second years. Bernas mischievously describes himself as a “delightful” teacher—and his students agree.
“He’s probably the most brilliant legal teacher I’ll ever have,” says PJ Bernardo, a junior associate at the Poblador Bautista and Reyes Law Offices who placed eighth in the last bar exams. “In our first year, we would be trembling whenever we were on deck. We were never bored; you’d be too afraid to be bored! But I still remember his cases up to now. He had this ability to simplify vague concepts of law, and draw out the answers from you.”
“Everybody holds him in such high regard, because he’s smart, funny, and can dish out good advice—it’s the whole package,” agrees another former student, Anna Su, who also passed the last bar exam and will be working at the Supreme Court.
“I don’t insult people,” Bernas clarifies good-naturedly. “The only one I’ve used is, ‘Explain to the class why your answer is wrong.’” Lawyer Pedro Ariston, a former Jesuit scholastic and student, remembers another subtle one: how Bernas would greet students with the question, “So what’s on your feeble mind today?”
Bernas says he can spot a good lawyer in first year. “Some of them are very smart. The amazing thing is, I teach them in first year, and they’re struggling, and then I meet them again in fourth year when they’re defending their thesis, and I ask, is this the kid I taught? They really grow up. It’s very gratifying to see.” The kind of lawyers he’d like to help mold, he says, “have to be excellent academically, but they also have to have a good heart. They should be willing to serve people, country, God. It’s always a mixture—you have very good graduates, and you also have scoundrels. I always tell them, if nothing else, come back to the Ateneo to go to confession.”
Since becoming Dean Emeritus, Bernas has had more time to hear those confessions, say Mass (his daily Mass at the Law School is famous for his short, succinct sermons) and give retreats. “My former students have accused me of becoming soft in my old age, but I still flunk people on occasion,” he says.
An admittedly sociable fellow, the 73-year-old Bernas hardly uses his quarters in Rockwell because “I don’t like being alone. I come back here every night so I can have breakfast with the guys,” referring to his fellow Jesuits. “People who don’t know me think I’m unapproachable, but when they buy me a drink they realize that’s not true.”
That drink, by the way, is usually a Royal Tru-Orange, and he admits to a fondness for Spanish food and ice cream. “When I visit with my siblings, they’re in trouble if they don’t have any ice cream for me. But they also have to rearrange the table, because I only eat what’s right in front of me.”
‘Temptation was there’
Having his own family was never an option, Bernas says, although “the temptation was there,” he says with a chuckle. “In fact, when I came back to the Ateneo after it became coed, I wondered if I would have survived if I had studied here as a young Jesuit, what will all those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students.” In many ways, he is also a friend to the students he mentors, who consult him frequently about personal problems, even love lives. “There’s this student here, whose father was my classmate. I married her parents, baptized her, married her and baptized her child.” One of his own nephews is already teaching in the law school.
Bernas enjoys a good walk around the Ateneo campus most mornings before breakfast to stay in shape, although he used to enjoy more vigorous rounds of pelota and tennis. He’s fit enough to drive himself around, though, and enjoys surfing the Net. “I’m just waiting for my retirement, which will never come,” he says with a laugh. “But seriously, I will retire when I feel I am no longer effective as a teacher. That would be unfair. But I’m very relaxed, and I’ve accepted what I can no longer accomplish.”
Does that mean that the lawyer has more time to be more—for lack of a better word—priestly? “My God is still the same. He never changes.”
Ariston summed it up during a speech he made for his beloved mentor’s 70th birthday: “More than being a premiere Filipino constitutionalist, more than anything else, the ‘SJ’ after his name defines the man!” Ariston said of Bernas. “My favorite defining image of him… is the Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ who at night, after dinner, clad in his pambahay shirt, khaki shorts and well-worn sneakers, walks around the Ateneo campus in solitude, praying the rosary.”
Writing about presidents
While the number of new priests has been dwindling, Bernas characteristically looks on the bright side. “It’s the age of the laity, and there are many things lay people can do that priests can’t.” For his part, the immediate plan is to keep writing. “I’ve already done the Cory presidency, the Ramos presidency, the abbreviated Erap presidency, and I’ve started putting together the GMA presidency, but I’m still looking for an adjective for that.” The good father peers over his glasses, smiling and pretending to search for a word you know he has already found. “‘Troubled’?”