Friday, September 15, 2006

Parishioners and the State, Citizens and the Church

Parishioners and the State, Citizens and the Church

Erik Villanueva

I was sitting inside an office at the North Wing of Congress, trying to prepare a policy briefer on water supply, as requested by my good Congressman Guillermo P. Cua, which is so important an issue that I decided to pour more gray matter over it. As usual, while working we were tuned in to the proceedings at the plenary hall. Congressmen took turns spilling their take on a statement by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. An article by Amado Doronila was mentioned. I had just half-read Doronila’s article appearing in the Inquirer issue that morning and found that it was just one of the usual Doronila, na para sa akin madaming sinasabi pero di ko makuha kung ano ang gustong sabihin, if I may sound e a bit more overboard. So instead of working on an important issue (water), I took some time out and tackled a useless issue in an “idiotic vicious downward spiral” (right, quote from my friend Taps) “where ordinary Filipinos refuse to be a part of.”

Amado Doronila’s analysis on the relationship of Church and State entirely misses the issue regarding the place of religion in a liberal democracy. It is confused and tends to infect others with confusion.

“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press,” according to Section 4 of the Bill of Rights (Article II of the Constitution).

The Constitution does not say that you are not supposed to enjoy these rights and freedoms once you become a priest or a bishop. No law can be passed abridging these freedoms even where priests and bishops are concerned. Priests and bishops, after all, do not lose their citizenship for being priests and bishops of whatever religion.

Thus, it is a wonder why and how Mr. Doronila has to belabor whether the Church can make statements on the issue of Charter change, as similar sentiments have been forwarded by various other groups.

Apparently, the reason why Mr. Doronila is taking on the Catholic Church is that there is supposed to be a division of labor between the “political” and the “moral or spiritual,” and that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has threaded beyond its province when it issued statements against Charter change, the postponement of the elections, or the mining laws. This betrays a lack of understanding of the historical origin of the provision that “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable” in Section 6, Article II (Declaration of Principles and State Policies Principles) of the Constitution. There was a time when the Catholic Church was de facto part of the State, and that was during the Spanish colonial administration in the Philippines. There was a time when the Catholic Church was constitutionally part of the state structure in some countries in Europe. Such an arrangement could not be consistent within the framework of a liberal democratic state. Under our own Constitution, the integration of the Catholic Church or any religion or religious organization with the state would not be consistent with the Constitutional guarantee for religious freedom under Section 5 of the Bill of Rights, even if the majority of Filipinos are Catholics.

While the Constitutional principle of separation of Church and State originated in reaction to either de facto or constitutional power of the Catholic Church, this principle applies to all religion.

Still, the Constitution accords some recognition of religious activities. “Charitable institutions, churches and parsonages or convents appurtenant thereto, mosques, non-profit cemeteries, and all lands, buildings, and improvements, actually, directly, and exclusively used for religious, charitable, or educational purposes shall be exempt from taxation,” according to Section 28(3), Article VI (The Legislative Department). Still this could not be interpreted as giving an inordinate recognition of religion when the separation of Church and State is supposed to be in force. This provision simply aims to highlight the non-profit role of charitable institutions, churches, parsonages, convents, mosques, non-profit cemeteries, and the properties at their disposal, including the fact that these non-profit enterprises provide public benefits. Under the law, other entities deemed to be delivering some public good are also exempted from taxation.

Elsewhere in the Constitution, the Church-State separation principle is even more forceful, in the provision that “No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church,denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium,” in Section 29 (2), Article VI (The Legislative Department).

But then the Constitution further accommodates religion when it provides that “At the option expressed in writing by the parents or guardians, religion shall be allowed to be taught to their children or wards in public elementary and high schools within the regular class hours by instructors designated or approved by the religious authorities of the religion to which the children or wards belong, without additional cost to the Government,” in Section 3 (3), Article XIV (Education).

However, separating the Church from the State does not imply a tacit agreement between the Church and the State that the former should only delve on spiritual and moral issues and avoid political issues. This is grossly wrong. The Catholic Church, after all, is just one of the various and many other corporate organizations founded by or composed of Filipino citizens, regardless of the amount of extraordinary reverence most Filipinos accord to it. The fact that its purpose is primarily religious in nature is just a secondary point. If a private organization of citizens -- whether civic, political, or cultural in nature -- can express its ideas and opinions on any issue as a matter of right, then the same right should be accorded also to the Catholic Church as a corporate entity and to bishops and priests as individual citizens. The same goes to any other religious groups. The fact that religious organizations enjoy or exercise moral influence on their members does not in any way makes them candidates for censorship.

Of course, as an institution the Catholic Church ought to be responsible in their pronouncements in the context of rational public discourse that aims to bear on public policy. Sharon Cuneta, obese as she is now, has to be more responsible than encouraging her fans to concoct artery-clogging condiments like a certain brand of mayonnaise with garlic and bagoong for longganisa and chicken lollipops, or Kris Aquino than encouraging her fans to stuff themselves with canned corned beef. Given the influence they have on their followers, they probably should be more circumspect about what product to endorse, and given the increasing incidence of heart problems and dyslipedemia (high blood cholesterol) among Filipinos. In the same breath, the only issue with the bishops is whether they have been responsible enough to consider all the implications of their call to abolish the Mining Act. But the way to confront statements like Sharon Cuneta’s, Kris Aquino’s, and the CBCP’s is to present contrarian evidence, not to muzzle their right to endorse or to issue statements.

What the brouhaha over the CBCP’s critical statements may actually betray is a reality as insidious as the attempt by some quarters to question the rights of religious leaders to exercise free speech. “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion,” according to Section 5, Article III (Bill of Rights). And yet some quarters, especially politicians, seem to be saying to the bishops “to leave politics and economics to us and we will leave morality to you.” This is not acceptable, as it implies that on certain moral issues such as abortion, cloning, stem cell research, gay marriage, the state has to submit to the precedence of religious morality. Under the principle of free expression and free inquiry guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, moral or political truths or both cannot be the monopoly of the church and any church, or the state or any state, or both.

Of course, what politicians are worried about is that parishioners may not see whether a particular pronouncement of the bishops is made based on dogma or based on reason. If it is based on dogma, then it is not subject to debate and all parishioners have to do is to submit to them if they were to remain in that religion. If it is based on reason, then it is subject to debate.

Church or religious dogmas of course are the business of the Church and of their parishioners, who must submit to those dogmas voluntarily. They are not the subject of rational public policy discourse. They are outside the realm of public politics, rational discourse, and scientific inquiry. However, when the pronouncements by religious leaders, whether based on religious dogma or on factual investigation, begin to bear on public policy, they can and should be confronted by rationale discursive engagement, not censorship, and not even to an appeal to a putative division of expertise between mundane and spiritual matters.

My personal views? The Catholic Church and other religions must continue to voice their stand on every moral, ethical, social, and political issue facing Filipinos. They may be wrong in calling for the revocation of the Mining Act, but they are right in emphasizing the rights and welfare of workers and indigenous peoples. They may be wrong in opposing Charter change at his point in time, but they are right in inviting attention to the way the government is using Charter change to advance its political interests and deflect attention to its misdeeds. Priests, nuns, bishops, brothers, sisters, ministers, pastors, etc. may be right or wrong, but they always have rights.

posted Mar 17, 2006 at

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