Separation of Church and State

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

Reflection of the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Luke 4: 21-30)

After reading the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus sat down, looked at his audience who were all anticipating what this new rabbi had to say. “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing,” he told them.

What passage was fulfilled that day? That captives be set free, that the blind see, that the oppressed find liberation, that there be freedom in the land!

The words in the scroll are not about the past. Jesus says it happens now as he reads them.

And it was too much for them, coming as they are from the mouth of a lowly carpenter’s son. Non-conformist that he is, he spoke truth to power. He did not do what they wanted. It would have been better if he kept his mouth shut. If he has personal political convictions, he should have kept it to himself. He should have only talked about temple matters and not meddle in political affairs, maybe like many of the rabbis. They were so angry that “they rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”

Rodrigo Duterte is so angry with the criticisms of priests and bishops. So angry that he wanted them robbed and killed. Reacting to the recent CBCP statement, his spokesman Panelo says: “What he’s (Duterte’s) saying is, the Church, you’re supposed to be in the spiritual side. Huwag na ‘yung governance ng gobyerno kasi you’re questioning the method by which this President is doing his duty.”

The same sentiment is also echoed by many well-meaning Christians. Their common rallying cry is the “separation of Church and State” – a Constitutional mandate which is most misunderstood and misused in the present debates. More insidiously, it has been used to used to silence religious critics who speak against the State’s abuse of power.

Let us try to unpack it to make it a bit clearer. Let me go back to some basic texts which have been lost in the noisy and confused rhetoric aimed to drown its real meaning.

If anything, the separation of Church and State is an injunction to the State, not to the Church: that the principle is inviolable (Philippine Constitution 1986, Art. II, Sec. 6); that the State shall not pass laws establishing any religion (Art. III, Sec. 5); and that the State shall not pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of any religion (Art III, Sec. 5).

These are referred to as the “non-establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause”. So, only the State can violate it, not the Church or any church personnel. When Duterte and his minions criticize the Church for violating the separation of Church and State, such criticisms are pointed at wrong directions.

On the contrary, it is the role of all citizens, including the Church and its members, to call out State authorities when they favor one religious group over another or prohibit some religions the free exercise of their beliefs.

Consequently, any Church leader or personnel (bishops, clergy and religious) has the right and duty to participate in the discussions of how this country should be run. It is incumbent upon them as citizens of the country. Moreover, when their religious belief commands them to denounce injustice, to condemn the violation of human rights, to protect human lives, to defend vulnerable citizens, to take responsibility for society, such duties are covered by the “free exercise” of one’s religion, thus, shall be respected by the State.

Since it is part of one’s religious duty, they can do it on the pulpit. They shall do it among their faithful in communities, in the classrooms, on the streets, but on the pulpits, too! Where else?

The priests and bishops are not using the pulpit to destroy the government. They are using the pulpit to exercise their belief in justice, freedom, respect of human dignity, etc. They are using the pulpit to proclaim their belief in a God who takes care of the vulnerable, the poor and the weak. And the Constitution surely protects such right.

“No law shall be made... prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed.” (Phil. Constitution, Art. III, Sec. 5).

Of course, the Catholic Church has its own pastoral advice for its clergy and religious (only the clergy and religious, not the lay people) not to join partisan politics. If they do, they shall take a leave from their Church ministry. This is falsely called as the “separation of Church and State” -akin to the Constitutional provision that the Church must follow. But this is a misnomer.

The reasons are different as you can see. These rules are “pastoral” not Constitutional, strategic not substantial. It is internal to the Church discipline, not an injunction of the State. Thus, Duterte or any State body has no jurisdiction over these internal rules, and could not use State power to silence them.

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines states:

“Pastors, besides having a teaching function, are also the foci of unity in the Church communities in all levels and for them to take active part in partisan politics, in the wheeling and dealing that it entails, would tend to weaken their teaching authority and destroy the unity they represent and protect.” (PCP II, 343).

“Still, the rule is not absolute,” PCP II continues.

“The distinction between moral principles, on the one hand, and partisan politics, on the other, is not always clear-cut in real life and they sometimes becomes inextricably linked – as when the bare enunciating of moral principles becomes, because of circumstances, in actuality an act of partisan politics” (PCP II, 344).

For this reason, the non-involvement in partisan politics is only secondary to “the more basic principle which governs the area of politics and binds all Christians, whether cleric or lay, at all times. And the principle is simply that politics, like all human activities, must be exercised always in the light of the faith of the Gospel; and the requirements of the Gospel in regard to human dignity, justice, charity, the common good, cannot be sacrificed on the flimsy pretext that ‘the Church does not engage in politics’. Concretely, this means that both clergy and laity must be involved in the area of politics when moral and Gospel values are at stake” (PCP II, 344).

This is as clear as the morning sun! Yet it is still midnight for many Christian minds in the Philippines today.

Some people are truly blind and seek healing. But many others pretend to be for obvious reasons. For the latter, it will always be dark.

And those who spoke up truth to power – out of their political, moral or Christian convictions – are incarcerated, silenced, maligned, threatened, killed. They are not the first. People already did that to Jesus, and to the prophets of all religions history has ever produced.

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology-Adamson University