POSTSCRIPT / May 14, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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It's not fair to kick out Buñag on just one strike

DA VINCI: With some trepidation, many Catholics are awaiting the showing of the film “The Da Vinci Code,” whose advance billing describes it as seriously challenging some of our cherished religious beliefs.

The film rides on the commercial success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci best seller and the international stir it has caused by its preposterous theory that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had children.

This and other startling “revelations” — plus Brown’s masterful mingling of a few facts and a lot of fiction — has pre-destined the movie to be a blockbuster.

The problem is that Filipino Catholics are largely not well grounded on their faith. So that when basic creeds into which they were born and baptized are challenged, they do not know how to respond rationally.

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DO NOTHING: The average Filipino Catholic is likely to just fall back on faith, which requires no elaborate explanation, to make him hold on to his beliefs picked up mostly from catechism sessions in his youth.

If there is this risk, therefore, that many of us may not be able to see through the fog of fiction shrouding Da Vinci, what do we Catholics do?

I would say, Do Nothing. It is too late to rush a reaction plan or to put up some defense.

It would be a big error to try stopping the film. That would just whet more curiosity and appetite for it. My guess is that the interest in Da Vinci will pass away just as other red-hot subjects in the past did without inflicting that much damage on faith standing solidly upon the Rock.

But this challenge should wake up Church leaders and the rest of us.

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THE TRUTH: What about the youth? Listen to Miguel Lorenzo S. Litao, second-year medical student at the UP College of Medicine, talk about Da Vinci in an email:

“I caught a glimpse of (Da Vinci’s) promotional poster in a big mall in Alabang and was actually intrigued seeing Tom Hanks and the albino monk out there. I was however, especially intrigued by its tag line — ‘Seek the truth.’

” ‘Seek the truth’ made me think, is the movie actually telling its potential plethora of ‘faithful’ to seek the truth? Seek the truth where? In the movie perhaps?

“As we all know, the movie’s plot is based on Jesus’ allegedly not being really a God and just being a man, and that He was actually married to Mary Magdalene, leading to a series of coverups orchestrated by the Catholic Church. Dan Brown must have researched on it well, he says after all that it is a historical fact.

The thing is, it’s not. The novel’s (and consequently the film’s) plot is actually based on Arianism, a heresy made and propagated by a certain priest named Arius in the 4th Century. Yes, 4th Century, almost 1, 700 years ago.

“As it is, the concoction of Arius is just that — a concoction. It thus follows that Dan Brown’s ‘historical facts’ are actually factual historical errors. It follows therefore that we will not and can not possibly find the truth in Dan Brown’s thriller of a novel and a movie.

“So where then do we seek the truth? People nowadays seem to like asking questions, especially questions on matters of faith and morality. Now this desire to seek answers is good, what makes it bad is when people seek the answers in places where they will never ever find them.

“Unfortunately a good number of people, including intellectuals, seem to have the predilection to seek the truth where they can’t find it and the aversion to seek the truth where they can actually find it (e.g. Catechism of the Catholic Church, www.vatican.va,www.opusdei.org).

“Only the truth can put an end to all this Da Vinci Code, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc., nonsense, and seeking the truth is very much within our grasp.”

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BUNAG TARGETED: Heaping on Revenue Commissioner Jose Mario Buñag all the blame for a shortfall in BIR collections for January-April, and demanding his resignation, is taking a lazy line of logic and missing the core of the problem.

As Bureau of Internal Revenue insiders tell it, the problem is not Buñag, but a host of factors — some of them external to the BIR — that the revenue chief and his team actually have been attacking aggressively since he came in just 10 months ago.

Changing him, as suggested by Rep. Joey Salceda, chairman of the House committee on economic affairs, is a knee-jerk reaction to the reported P10-billion shortfall in the April total score after months of impressive performance.

When Buñag became BIR officer-in-charge last July, he inherited a collection deficit of P11.2 billion. In his first full month, he surpassed the target for August by a whopping P3 billion to reduce its eight-month deficit to about P8 billion.

For October, the BIR collected P47.5 billion to pass its target by P600 million and more than make up for a slight shortfall of P200 million for September. From August to October, Buñag’s first full quarter at the helm, the BIR posted a P2.3-billion surplus.

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MYOPIC, UNFAIR: Then with his suddenly falling short of the April revenue target set by planners at the finance department, he now has to be removed? That is not only premature and myopic, but also unfair.

Professionals in government should not be treated like car salesmen who are deemed only as good as their last month’s performance regardless of their outstanding record in prior months. They work and must be judged over time.

But of course that is the rough and tumble world of politics Buñag has gotten himself into. He will have to contend with the possibility that some people around President Gloria Arroyo want their own man holding that critical post.

Actually, the BIR collected P7 billion more taxes in April compared to the same month last year. As of April 29, preliminary figures showed that the bureau had collected P69 billion, compared to only P62 billion in April last year.

In the first quarter of this year (January-March), BIR exceeded its collection target of P131.4 billion by P3.6 billion, for a total collection of P135 billion.

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UP AND DOWN: As suggested by Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, the BIR’s overall performance should be viewed over one fiscal year. “We know that collections have highs and lows,” he noted. “What’s important is the total collection at the end of the year.”

The least that Malacañang can do is find out first what happened between October and December last year, and between January and April this year. Buñag’s insight is important to a clinical review and the adoption of remedial measures.

Revenue goals, btw, are not set by the BIR but by technocrats in the finance department some of whom may not be familiar with the reality on the ground. Their cold-blooded concern is simply to raise the money needed by the budgetary appropriations prepared by the Department of Budget and Management.

Under pressure, the finance dreamers set collection targets that are unrealistically too high. After all, their work is just to set the revenue target. Hitting it is somebody else’s big problem.

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WHOSE CREDIT?: The figures can change significantly if some taxes, such as the P1.5 billion from withholding taxes on interests of treasury bills, are added to the BIR collection. Although these are internal revenue taxes, they are credited to the Bureau of Treasury.

The finance department, I was told, has also been crediting to the Bureau of Customs internal revenue taxes derived from the revised Value-Added Tax.

This “diversion” has caused demoralization among BIR officials as they are blamed if there is a shortfall, although the collection of such taxes is beyond their control.

On the VAT, there appears to have been an overestimate of how much the government could collect. Projections were bloated. Leakages were brushed aside in the administration’s effort to show that VAT was a rich source of revenue.

With the imagination of collection target-setters running wild, revenue goals tended to go up and actual collections fell short.

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SYSTEMS REVIEW: Maybe the administration can form a group, with representatives from the tax-collecting agencies and the finance and budget departments, that would set revenue targets by consensus.

The tyranny of finance and budget technocrats should be tempered, if not terminated.

The group could also see to the proper crediting of collections to the appropriate agencies. This can help improve personnel management and prevent demoralization in the collection agencies.

In the same way that President Arroyo is now looking at system change to improve governance, the finance department — and even Congress from where Salceda operates — should keep reviewing the tax system in its totality.

There is just too much cheating in the higher tax brackets. With their resources and connections, big earners are able to evade, not just avoid, paying big but reasonable taxes with the help of taxation experts and conniving officials.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 14, 2006)

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