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Philippine Church should tap its schools for coronavirus education

Catholic bishops in the Philippines have responded to the new coronavirus pandemic with mandatory prayers and pastoral letters urging the faithful to make adjustments to curb the spread of the disease.

But can they do more? Can bishops go beyond the spiritual, and offer more earthly advice?

Quite understandably, the bishops’ pastoral letters and messages have focused largely on cancellation of Masses, new rules integrating “social distancing” in church events, and urging prayer twice a day.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, went a step further and admonished the faithful against “panic buying,” while also drawing attention to the plight of the poor.

Certainly, the bishops could do more only if they take a second look at the enormous brain trust that’s available to them, but which they have not tapped: Catholic schools, colleges, and universities.

The Philippines’ oldest medical school in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) has been officially quiet in terms of public service announcements to help allay public fears and panic.

Dr. Gia Sison, a graduate of medicine from the Catholic university, said her alma mater and other Catholic universities can actually help educate the public directly, or through the bishops.

“UST and other Catholic universities could be a good source of credible information about COVID-19,” she said.

“It could take advantage of the people’s hunger for information,” added the doctor.

Sison said she’s certain many Thomasian doctors are willing to provide bishops regular briefings on the virus, so that they can help share verified information through pastoral letters and homilies.

The doctor said she wants UST to be as active in public affairs, including the current public health emergency, in the same way the university loudly promotes its teams in inter-university sports tournaments.

The University of Santo Tomas’ Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, which was established in 1871, is the first medical school in the Philippines. (Photo by Maria Tan)

According to Sison, UST and other Catholic universities could focus on “stories of hope,” like those of people who actually recovered from the new coronavirus. 

“We’re now starting to get used to updates on the number of confirmed infections and deaths. Maybe we could provide the public with information on the possibility of getting well and surviving,” she said.

Religious congregations operate some of the biggest and most prominent private schools, colleges, and universities in the country, including St. Louis University, Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle Schools, San Beda University, the University of Asia and the Pacific, the University of San Carlos, the University of Negros Occidental, Notre Dame University, and the University of the Immaculate Conception.

Many of the Catholic colleges and universities have schools or faculties of medicine and nursing, hospitals, and even research centers. 

But like UST, most if not all are largely quiet on the issue of the new coronavirus, producing no public service announcements, except on class suspensions that affect only their students.

Bishops, on the other hand, appear to have forgotten about this enormous brain trust that’s available to them, as we could guess from the content of their messages to the Catholic faithful.

Sison, an expert on mental health, said Catholic colleges and universities can dialogue with the bishops and become subject matter experts. 

Bridging this disconnect requires open-minded bishops and stronger public service orientation among Catholic colleges and universities. But there are more incentives if they are willing to collaborate.

The bishops could raise their awareness of the new coronavirus, along with other matters beyond their competence as church leaders. They could also trust the experts coming from the Catholic colleges and universities on the matter.

Catholic colleges and universities, meanwhile, will be able to show to the bishops and their own communities their competence, relevance, and readiness to serve ordinary Catholics and the general public.

Ultimately, the faithful will benefit because of the science-backed insights and information that could come from Catholic bishops, priests, and schools. 

A Catholic church in Manila has been closed to the public after the Philippine capital was placed under quarantine to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Imagine if we have bishops coming out with pastoral letters not only calling for prayers, but also debunking myths and disinformation with advice from the Philippines’ top Catholic schools.

It can go on beyond the ongoing new coronavirus pandemic. Catholic church leaders and academics can provide both spiritual and scientific counsel for other concerns of the public and the Church. 

People go to church for spiritual refuge when faced with natural and man-made calamities, from super typhoons to climate change. 

Lots of disinformation and myths have accompanied the pandemic, including fake cures, overtly racist descriptions of the illness, and what the public can do to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Secular institutions led by the country’s Department of Health, the University of the Philippines, and the World Health Organization have been trying to allay the public’s hunger for information.

Catholic leaders should not miss the opportunity to help put to rest public fears and, using the platform of their online students, spread credible, scientific information to save lives.

The bishops can do more than offer prayers and blessings. They can ask Catholic schools to help minister and understand the people’s plight and the situation we now collectively face.

Tonyo Cruz is a Filipino blogger, newspaper columnist, and convener of the media and arts alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of

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