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An Imaginary Wall of Separation

The campaign period for the presidential election in May is well underway and is now reaching a feverish pitch. Everybody wants a piece of the action in what could be a watershed moment. There are several candidates vying for the top spot with ex-senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo taking the top two spots.

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is slowly fading in the polls and has complained of Robredo using Catholic Church grounds during her campaign sorties. Marcos has also called attention to a recent pastoral letter urging Catholics not to vote for candidates guilty of distorting history – a clear reference to the namesake of the late dictator.

The Catholic Church has made it clear that it cannot endorse a candidate or be identified with a political party. Church leaders vehemently deny that they are engaging in partisan politics despite appearances of partisanship but only “wishes to speak the truth.” Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan graced a public campaign event featuring 1Sambayan convenor and retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio, who are both Robredo supporters.

The Vatican is very clear about its stand on partisan politics by giving Caesar his due (Pacim in Terris, Immortale Dei, and Dignitatis Humane). As a matter of fact, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) was chided for its partisan endorsements in 2013. Archbishop Villegas himself minced no words about such an endorsement that tarnishes the church's spiritual mission with the "stain of the mundane." Religion has been used for political gain and our spiritual mission has been compromised,” was his stand in 2013 regarding “Team Patay, Team Buhay.”

This time around, it appears that many religious groups, members of the clergy, and even some higher ups in the CBCP are no longer hiding their colors and have openly endorsed the Robredo candidacy. Other religious denominations are also getting in the act and making their own political endorsements. Bro. Mike Velarde of El Shaddai endorsed Marcos but was rebuffed by Bishop emeritus Teodoro Bacani, the Catholic group’s spiritual advisor.

Iglesia ni Kristo, Jesus is Lord Movement, and other Protestant groups have openly endorsed candidates with their voting blocks in tow. The Iglesia ni Kristo (Church of Christ) in particular, have flexed its muscle before and after elections and have sought political appointments for its members.

Some in the Catholic Church hierarchy are concerned that Robredo campaign supporters are giving the impression that their candidate is endorsed by the Catholic Church. “Don’t use the pulpit to campaign for a candidate,” a discordant voice from Cebu Archbishop Jose Pala. But with the actions taken by some priests and Church’ leaders, what other impressions can be made?

The Catholic Church, frankly, is trying to have it both ways. By trying to frame the election as a fight between good and evil, it is trying to skirt such a divide. Their real worry is protecting its image from long term damage and to its spiritual mission. I’m baffled as to how they’re making such calculus because they can clearly justify the legality of what they’re doing. By openly demonizing the late dictator for his Martial Law sins and the son for defending his father’s legacy, the Church has made it plain that Robredo met its morality standard.

The old adage regarding mixing religion and politics has a powerful truth that when religion is used for political purposes, that it “empties religion of eternal meaning” and becomes just a tool for grabbing power on earth. Just because an endorsed candidate wins, it does not necessarily follow that the church also wins. The opposite is actually true. Think of the Catholics supporting Marcos in the millions and visualize their reaction when their candidate loses.

The Church could lose adherents but Robredo’s supporters could care less. As a matter of fact, her supporters are saying that those who would vote for Marcos are idiots, immoral, and evil – good riddance! Robredo supporters are pointing to other religions. The INK and other religious Protestant denominations have done it in the past and will continue to do it precisely because they want elections to become religious wars. When they vote as a block, they don’t really lose adherents. They actually gain more when their endorsed candidate wins and will point to political appointments they’ve gotten because of such endorsement.

When the Catholic Church becomes entangled in such a political mess, win or lose, risks alienating a segment of the flock. If Marcos wins, Catholic Robredo supporters might think that the Catholic Church is powerless by allowing “evil” to triumph especially since Catholics have 86% share of the pie. By extension, some would even question their faith for such embarrassment.

Some members of the clergy are probably offended by President Rodrigo Duterte’s vulgarities towards them, the Pope especially. But, just like individual priests, Duterte also enjoys the constitutional protection of free speech. When church activities were restrained, if not totally, limited, Duterte was merely exercising his presidential powers to safeguard the people.

Besides, the Catholic Church was not singled out with regards to such restrictions. It gave the appearance that Duterte was picking on them but not really true. The Church activities like the Feast of the Black Nazarene, by itself could be a super spreader, if allowed. The large numbers of churchgoers also made it impossible not to restrict such occasions.

Astute Catholic princes have always put a premium to consider the true meaning of the church/state separation especially knowing religious freedom in the Philippines is openly practiced. Which brings us to what is truly involved in such a concept. The Establishment Clause in all Philippine constitutions dates back to the Malolos Constitution in repudiation of the Spanish colonial system. GOMBURZA, Jose Rizal, and others were killed because of such a potent union.

When the United States annexed the Philippines in 1898, it made sure that its charter followed that of the United States particularly when it came to the church/state separation. The Malolos Constitution adopted Roman Catholicism as the state religion but the U.S. Congress repudiated that in the Philippine Bill of 1902 that officially established such separation.

The 1987 Cory Constitution, however, practically altered or muddled the inviolability of such separation by recognizing “preferred or group religion” with the creation of the autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras.

The Bangsamoro Organic Law provides an exception thereby Muslims can apply the Muslim’s shari’ah laws and the jurisdiction of shari’ah courts. In the case of the Cordillera Autonomous Region, the state practically sanctioned a religious sacrificial ceremony – the Cañao, where animals are butchered as a sacrifice and feasted on.

The Philippines has also recognized certain religious celebrations as official holidays like Catholic’s Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, All Saints Day, Christmas Day, and Muslim’s Eidul Fitr. In the Preamble, it makes it clear that the Philippines is a Christian nation believing in Almighty God – not Allah. Clearly, the country has adopted a Filipino style concept of the church/state separation.


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