HIS MANY books, a huge iMac dominating his desk, pictures of himself with students on the wall and on the shelves, papers waiting to be read, and bottles of wine and Blue Label on the floor behind him (all gifts, he quips)—Father Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.’s office, in some ways, tells the story of his life.
At 82 and counting, although stooping as he walks and only wisps of white hair on his head, Joaquin Bernas’ presence still commands attention, his words still demand respect. His eyes twinkle as he speaks about his life with ease and with no hesitations, showing the vigor and brilliance of his youth and the wisdom gained from his age.
Father Bernas rarely needs an introduction, as he is easily one of the most recognized figures of the Ateneo and the Philippine legal community. His reputation precedes him. He is the master of the Constitution, being a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission. His advice is widely sought after by his fellow lawyers, politicians, and even presidents, having played his part in all the administrations from the time of Ferdinand Marcos. His column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer called Sounding Board is held in high regard. Meanwhile, in the Ateneo Law School, his students are either in awe or fear of him. “Father B,” as most students fondly call him, is known to fail a lot of students every semester, without exception—no matter what kind of party you throw for him for his birthday.
In this interview with The Palladium, Joaquin Bernas sheds light to a different aspect of himself, beyond all the musings in the law that we know him to be.
Born on July 8, 1932 in Camarines Sur to a doctor father and a high school graduate mother, Father Bernas is the second child in a brood of 12 (six boys and six girls). “It was a very happy childhood. We were all growing up and we were all going to school,” he shares. The first three were boys, and his mother incessantly prayed for a girl, until finally the genders evened out. Only nine of them are left, the three having died as adults, and one at 48, the same age when his father died.
His happy life in Bicol was mostly uninterrupted during World War II. “It only got difficult towards the end of the war when the Japanese were already scared. By that time, that’s when we were evacuated,” he says. “We went up to the mountains to hide. But before that, we were living normal lives.”
It was at the young age of 17 that he joined the Society of Jesus. He jokingly says, “Since we were already 12, pinamigay nalang ako (I was just given away) [to the Jesuits].” Being away from his family did not affect their bond, as he managed to keep in touch with them. “Even until now, I go to have meals with them,” he shares. Eventually, two of his sisters also entered the religious life with the Benedictines, while two other siblings took up law. Two of his nephews also joined him in the legal profession.
Father Bernas was quite the rascally son. In his office hangs a framed picture of him with a beard, genuinely looking like a character from Aladdin. He happily shares the story behind it: “I went to see my mother and I had a beard then. ‘Unless you shave that, don’t come back here,’ she said. So I had my picture taken before I shaved it.”
After having been with the Jesuits for seven years and having completed his Bachelor of Arts in English, Latin, and Greek Classics, as well as his Masters in Philosophy, Father Bernas went on to study law. “I expressed my intention [to his superiors] to study law. Usually, you are given a choice on what to specialize in. I got interested in law because my Masters thesis was something about constitutional issues,” he explains.
Being older than most of his classmates in law school, Father Bernas confesses, albeit unbelievably, that he was a shy student—and remains to be until now. But was he good in recitations? He answers succinctly, “I had to!” He did not have any favorite professor or subject, and simply welcomed anything that came along the way. “I just wanted to finish everything.” Surprisingly, he reveals that Justice Hector Hofileña, who still happens to teach at the Law School, had been his professor as well!
Father Bernas was the valedictorian of ALS Batch 1962, which is quite star-studded. Among his batch mates were Retired Supreme Court Justice Adolfo Azcuna, fomer Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena, and another renowned author and Ateneo professor, Cesario Azucena. Right after placing 9th in the Bar, he flew to the United States and took his Masters and Doctorate in Law at the New York University, and at the same time studied Theology at Woodstock College.
It was in 1966that he began to teach in ALS. He has been with the Law School ever since, except for the nine years he spent as President of the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) and six years as Head of the Jesuit Order. At some point, he also taught Latin and English in the Ateneo High School. He eventually became Dean of the Law School in 1984. “As a Dean, I enjoyed it. I don’t know if they enjoyed it!” he muses. He was pulled out of the law school to be the Dean of the Arts and Sciences in AdMU, and was put back in the law school to be Dean again.
As a professor, Father Bernas denies being strict, and his students can attest to this. While some professors get easily disappointed and irked when students come to class unprepared, he simply keeps his cool: “I’m not the one being graded… I will just give them a low mark! Bahala sila!”Nevertheless, his students know that despite his generally calm demeanor, laughing with (or at) you while you recite disastrously, a low grade still lurks behind.
“I always enjoyed teaching, I always enjoyed tormenting people!” Father Bernas snickers. “I think they [his students] also enjoyed it, especially after they go through me and they’ll look back… That’s the case with students all time, they boast of the professors they have—after.” He has no favorite students, and treats them all the same, “That’s how you get a high grade, I did not discriminate against you,” he jokes. He also claims not to have any memorable memory, as he finds that law students are the same every year. But those who have been his students certainly have memories of him, as one of our editors reminds him of the time he made her sing the National Anthem in class. He only laughs at the memory of it.
As a teacher and administrator right out of law school, Father Bernas has always focused on the academic side of the law. But if he had practiced law, he says he would have enjoyed it as well. “My classmates are doing very well,” he says, and he “would just be making money!” he adds with a laugh.
However, it was not always peaceful in his newfound profession. Father Bernas was the Head of the Jesuit Order when Martial Law was declared. “I had to play with the military to protect the Jesuits who were in trouble,” he shares. As administrator of the law school, he did not encounter any problems. “I had no difficulty with them. Martial Law respected the academic profession, so they did not bother the Ateneo at all,” he explains. “We were raided, but nothing happened, they found nothing.” Did he encourage law students to join the rallies? He answers laughing, “Bahala sila! Bahala kayo sa buhay niyo. (You’re in charge of your lives.) After all, they were already college graduates; they knew what was good for them.”
As he recalled the years of Martial Law, Father Bernas still has good words for the man behind it, then President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He remarks, “He was very smart. He has a very profound respect for the law and academic freedom… But when he saw that the people were already rejecting him, that’s when he voluntarily left for the States.” He adds, “When he was first elected, I was very much for him. At that time, I helped in drafting some of his speeches, for instance, when he went to US Congress. But this was in the early days before Martial Law. So I have always been a collaborator, I guess!”
Collaborator, it seems, in all the administrations of whoever is in power—but mostly in a speech-making and/or advisory capacity, the latter more so as the years progressed. “Estrada was my friend,” he declares. He also counts Vice President Jejomar Binay as his friend, adding, “I have no enemies.”
But among the administrations that persisted, it is the present one, that of President Noynoy Aquino, that he has not involved himself with, despite having worked closely with his mother. “I worked in the election of PNoy, until we had a falling out,” Father Bernas recalls. “Well, he didn’t like to be criticized. I criticized the way he was handling the Gloria case, and the Corona [impeachment]. He took it very personally… After a while I gave up, the only answer he would give is ‘Ah, Bernas is only saying that because they’re related to the family.’” His nephew, he says, is married to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s daughter. He also admits to being against the Corona impeachment. However, he does concede that generally, Corona’s situation was handled well.
These collaborations reached their peak in 1986, when Father Bernas became a member of the Constitutional Commission created by then President Corazon Aquino. He recalls, “Before, I was part of a group called the ‘Council of Trent’ [a group of key presidential advisers very close to Cory]… I worked very closely with Cory when she was just starting. I wrote some of her speeches. And then she finally called for a Constitutional (Commission). She appointed 50 and 48 showed up. After that, she did not interfere with the work of the Constitutional Commission at all. At that time, I was also President [of AdMU], so I was shuttling between Loyola and Batasan.”
Asked if there is something he wants to amend in the current Constitution that he helped draft, Father Bernas states, “I would shorten the Constitution. [There are] so many useless things there… The reason why its very long is that, sige na nga, we just put it in there and then we put ‘as may be provided by law’. It ends the debate, so we go on to another topic. Because if we debated everything to the full, we’d still be there!”
Father Bernas jokes that he believes the country is going where it is bound to go, with the kind of “characters” in government. On a more serious note, he still sees the spirit of the Constitution in how our country is run, but “we’ve really never been tested, except for the Japanese occupation.” What kind of test do we need to test our Constitution? “We need to be invaded by China,” he chuckles.
Asked on his opinion about current issues, he asks, “How much time do we have?” Of course, having worked in the previous six administrations and having written the Constitution our rule of law is built on, Father Bernas’ words on any national issue weighs heavily on his listeners and readers. As regards PNoy’s controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), he shares, “Well they were consulting me about that before. Remember, this involves the use of the transfer of funds; and the President can transfer savings. If you look at the things they were transferring, they were not savings; they were original funds. I think the provisions on handling money there can be questioned. The problem I think is, even if they declare it unconstitutional, will it make it retroact to past dispositions of money or only to future dispositions?” True enough, the Supreme Court, through Araullo v. Aquino, unanimously voted against the constitutionality of certain acts under the DAP, echoing the same sentiments of the esteemed constitutionalist.
“What else? EDCA…it’s a political thing. And Congress can handle it. Current campaign of PNoy against his opponents, well, there’s a lot of politics in it. And we’ll see when he finishes his term who will be prosecuted,” he says.
Much of his work as a lawyer and in government is still guided by his faith. “I ask myself, ‘Can this be reconciled with my priesthood?’” he says. “The campaign against Martial Law and the campaign for human rights is very reconcilable with my priesthood.” He says he can reconcile his being a priest with being a lawyer, even though sometimes, what is legal cannot be equated with what is moral. “No, I will not go [for] something that goes against my morality. I would go against a law that’s immoral.”
How about the Reproductive Health Law? Naturally, the Catholic Church hierarchy in the Philippines was the law’s primary nemesis. But in true Bernas fashion, he remained outspoken in his column and television interviews, as he lends his support for the highly divisive legislation. “My position there is that there are so many good things about the RH Law, and let’s not kill it now. As far as the defective things about it let’s handle that to litigation, individual litigation, and attack them individually.” He adds, “The Jesuits took no sides in that, and the bishops took sides. I was visited by a couple of bishops, asking me to take their side. I said, ‘This is the side, this is my side, this is what I believe in.’ So in the end, I was satisfied with what was approved.”
So does this mean he is pro-contraceptives? “I want to give individuals a choice. If it’s a concrete problem, ask me in the confessional!” he again jokes. “All these things are not simple, it all depends on the circumstances of the individual.” He would be against a divorce law, however. But he admits that in point of fact, legal separation is defective, and that there are already actual separations and divorces without benefit of the law.
The Bernas Legacy
Asked how he would want to be remembered, he jokes again, “As a saint!” eliciting laughter from everyone in the room. “Bakit tumatawa kayo?” He adds lightheartedly that as a saint, he would want to be the patron saint of lawyers, beating our current patron saint, St. Thomas More. “Well, those who deal with me as priests would remember me as a priest!” But perhaps, to the outside world he would mostly be remembered as a lawyer. To prove his point, he says that he managed to author several law books, but none on theology. “I’ll leave that to those who know theology,” he retorted. “I mean, I also have a Masters in theology, but enough to get me ordained, and maybe even enough to make me a bishop!”
If he weren’t a Jesuit or a lawyer, “I’d be a rascal!” Father Bernas laughs. “I’ll be in the Middle East,” referring to his bearded picture on the wall. “I’ll be in jail, probably! And I doubt I would have been involved in politics.”
Out of the 48 members of the Constitutional Commission, at least 35, he says, are still around. Still, he humorously thinks that he is the most notorious among them. One does not need to think hard to know why.
Throughout the years, he has earned so much respect, not just for what he has achieved, but also for what he stands for. He has been a voice of reason and wisdom for everyone in trying times, a voice of presidents and of the people—laughing and joking all the while. We, students of the law, can only hope to fill the big shoes that Joaquin Bernas has worn so well all these years, in service of the Ateneo, of country, and of God.
Favorite animal: A mouse.
Beer or wine: Depends on the occasion. I drink both, I also drink scotch, whatever is available… Umiinom ako sa misa lang! I don’t know why, I have this reputation that I go to class daw, drunk! I’ve never been drunk!
Blue or Black Label: Well, it’s not that I don’t like it [Blue Label], I think people overestimate it. They think it’s the best because it’s expensive, I prefer Black [Label] anytime!
Cigarettes or cigars: I don’t smoke. I used to smoke both cigarettes and cigars, until I reached a point where I could not stop coughing, so I had to get rid of both.
Favorite food: I have no favorite food really, I eat anything that’s there and that’s edible.
UP Law or Ateneo Law: Well I wanted to go to UP, but my superior said ‘No, you go to Ateneo.’ I guess he was afraid that I would fall in love in UP. At the time that I studied law, [Ateneo] was not yet co-ed, so I was safe!
On the legalization of marijuana: Medicinal? Yes. Recreationally, well it’s subject to abuse but if you can control it naman then pwede… I had no occasion for trying.
Favorite movie: I really have no favorite movie. I like movies, sometimes I like comedies, sometimes I like dramas. What was the last movie I watched? Ah yes, I watched Frozen. Well, it was fun.
Favorite book: The Bible of course. The Godfather? Oh, that was fun! I identified with the priest there.”
On the Bar 2013 results: This year, UP had, five I think. But the year before that they had nothing and we had six. There was a time when we had nine.
Higher passing rate or a topnotchers: Actually, I think we accepted too many students. [W]e have to do something about admissions and retention.
Have you ever been in love? Wow! I’m always in love. What does that mean? Love is a many-splendored thing.
Greatest achievement: That I passed the Bar. I have held all sorts of positions, as Dean of the college, Dean of the Law School, I was Head of the Jesuit Order, and President of the Ateneo. What can you do? They always think I have nothing to do, so they give me something to do.
Regrets: I don’t look back that way, what is past is past, you cannot do anything about it.
Message to young people and the student body: Be good and avoid evil.
Message to aspiring lawyers: Well they have to study, and keep your integrity intact.
On his students who have been impeached or accused of crimes in government: Human nature is human nature, so I’m not shocked.
Miami Heat or Spurs: Whoever wins. Spurs—they have a terrible coach.
On his favor for Apple products: That’s the only thing I can afford. I have been with Apple from the earliest days, when it was not yet a fad.
On Pope Francis: Some people even posted [their photos] side by side [on Facebook]. Born from the same mother!