Restitution and National Reconciliation



Last November 8, as the citizens  of the United States of America were making a beeline to choose their next president, we, here in the Philippines, received  the news about the final resting place of a former president. For 27 long years, the issue whether Ferdinand Marcos would be allowed to be buried in the National Cemetery for Heroes was finally  resolved when our Supreme Court decided, by a vote of 9-5, that there is no law that prohibits him from being buried in our Heroes’ Cemetery.

The Historical Context

For our readers, who may not know much of Philippine history, Ferdinand Marcos, served as our country’s president, from 1965 to 1986. In those twenty-one years, he abolished our constitution, declared martial law, put to jail many of his political opponents, killed and tortured thousands of activists (including priests and nuns), and literally stole from our nation’s treasury. In 1986, he was ousted from power through a peaceful revolution.

Marcos died in 1989, and his remains were brought back to his home province in Northern Philippines in 1993. Since then, his family has never buried his body. Instead, they built a mausoleum for him and placed his body in a glass casket, where people can come and see him. The place has even become a tourist spot.

The issue of his final resting place has divided our nation for the past many years. There are those who say that, with the decision to bury him in a place reserved for our nation’s great men and women, it is already time to move on and start our nation’s healing process. However, there are those who say that burying him in the National Cemetery for Heroes will only deepen the wounds of our people, especially those who suffered the atrocities of his presidency.

The Restitution of Zacchaeus

This article is not meant to discuss the legalities of the decision of our Supreme Court, nor do I intend to discuss a part of our nation’s history. Rather, I would like to use this historical event in our country to share about  a concept in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that is very much related to the themes of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. And that is the teaching on restitution.

The Gospel reading for the 31st Sunday of this year was about the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). While this Gospel passage speaks about the compassion of Jesus and his willingness to forgive sinners, it also makes a point in the act of restitution that Zacchaeus makes when he finally realizes that Jesus has indeed come to save him. In a courageous act, he declares: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).  Zacchaeus, in making the pledge of giving half of his possessions, acknowledges that he has sinned. He has stolen from the poor. His apology does not end in words; he promises to return what he has stolen.

In the official text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find: “In virtue of commutative justice, reparation for injustice committed requires the restitution of stolen goods to their owner” (op. cit., § 2412). Strict justice requires an exact reparation for the injury that has been committed to another person.

Of course, there are some instances where exact reparation for the injury committed would be impossible. However, Catholic teaching is clear that there at least should be an effort to repay the wrong that has been done. The act of restitution obviously comes after two other steps. The injuring party should: 1) show an acknowledgment of the sin that they have committed, and 2) take responsibility for their act.

Mercy and Reparation

But what happens when the offending party, does not acknowledge the sin that  has been  committed? How can the process of healing and reconciliation begin when the offending party just refuses to admit that a wrong has been done to a neighbor?

In the sacrament of confession , there is no absolution without a sincere sorrow for sins. Normally, sorrow for one’s sins  comes in three stages: First, there is the awareness and acknowledgment of sin. Secondly, there is a deep desire for conversion. Thirdly, there is a desire to make a certain act of reparation for one’s fault. Only, when true sorrow is expressed can absolution be given.

In this Year of Mercy and Compassion, people often mouth the words “be merciful” and “be compassionate” without really trying to understand what these commands entail. To show mercy is not a simple act of writing off the faults of another person. If one would really want to heal the wounds of the past, then there should be, first and foremost, an acknowledgment of the pains that has been committed by the sins of the past.  Hopefully, such recognition would lead to an accompanying act of restitution for the faults committed.

How Can We Move On?

Going back to the historical context that has led to this reflection: The Marcos family has always insisted that it is time for our country to move on and start the process of forgiveness and national reconciliation. In light of the Catholic teachings, how can we move on and start the process of forgiveness if the offending party has never, in our history, uttered a word of apology for the sins that their family has committed to our nation? How can mercy be bestowed, if the other party does not even acknowledge that a sin to the nation has ever been done? Forgiveness is given to those who wrong us; mercy is bestowed to those, who in the recognition of their sins, seek for mercy. Moving on is possible only when an act of reparation is done.

In our own personal lives, the call to be forgiving presupposes that there is someone who asks for forgiveness. The call to be merciful is based whether there are people who actually desire for mercy. National reconciliation and forgiveness  are  nice and ideal concepts. But in the real world, any moving on, any reconciliation, any  call for forgiveness should really be based on a sense of justice, a sense of responsibility and a sense of restitution.

Sad to say, to this day, even with the impending burial of our former president in our National Pantheon for Heroes, there can be no sense of a national reconciliation, until the other party finally says, just like Zacchaeus, “Look,  here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

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2 thoughts on “Restitution and National Reconciliation”

  1. I’m old enough to remember the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos as reported here in the U.S. That the people of the Philippines were able to rid yourselves of Ferdinand’s (and wife Imelda’s) corrupt government in a bloodless revolution is to your credit.

    Two sayings about forgiveness come to mind – ‘Forgive and forget,’ and ‘Forgive but never forget.’ For small slights or when hurt feelings are the result of a transgression, the first saying usually is the best advice. But in instances where the transgression is a big one, as in Ferdinand’s case, the second seems more appropriate. Insofar as his final resting place goes, it sounds like maybe the Marcos family is trying to re-write some history.

    1. This story is complicated, as indicated by a March 2016 poll done of the Philippine people.

      It is a poll only of “validated voters,” but is generally consistent with polls done in the past, and shows that 59% believe that Marcos deserves to “be buried with official honors,” while 41% believe that he should be given a “private burial only.”

      Marcos was validly elected to the Presidency twice, in 1965 and 1969, the second time with something approaching 60% of the vote, and then seized power by declaring martial law in 1972, in part, it is said by many, because he was term-limited from running again. As in many lesser-developed countries, the political choices to the average citizen are frequently poor and not particularly beneficial in the long run for them. So people take sides, almost out of near term self-interest and a rather narrow consideration, dooming themselves to long-term marginality. The Philippines, in this respect, is not so very different from many, many other countries in similar, or worse, circumstances.

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