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Religious values are not politically incorrect

Fr. Jerome R. Secillano, MPA

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By cursing some bishops and calling the Church the most hypocritical institution, President Duterte has virtually stripped the Philippine Catholic Church of the “political power” it once had, especially in the subsequent years following the first EDSA revolution. It came as no surprise that majority of the Filipinos are appreciative of what the President did, even if the comments are downright disrespectful and rude towards an institution that ought to command deference and reverence. Filipinos are fed up with the Church’s “interference” in the public sphere. And the fact that the President commands a high degree of approval from a populace that has grown tired of the status quo in our society, his comments are, unfortunately, almost always believable if not admirable.

In a statement, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said “the Church is not an enemy of the government”. The Church, in many instances, may differ from how the government does things, but it should not in any way be considered adversarial towards a popular President. It is simply playing the role of conscience in a society that has seemingly embraced the absence of the rule of law, disregard for basic human rights, dearth of morality and decency, and a lack of rationality in the formulation and implementation of public policies.

The Church in the public sphere should not be a cause for alarm and harm. What should alarm the Filipinos are the growing number of dead people executed without the benefit of due process and the passage of impending bills (death penalty, same-sex union, and divorce) that are expected to destroy the moral fiber of a society that used to put more premium on religious values like respect for life and basic human rights, strong families, social justice, equality, and human solidarity more than the secular principles advanced by the men and women in our government.

While the debate as to whether the Church should or should not be allowed to participate in the public sphere rages among scholars, Filipinos were cheering on Duterte while the latter was lambasting the institution for its supposed hypocrisy. Such a reaction is a strong rebuke against the Church and a vehement expression that religion for the most part should remain a private and domestic matter strictly separated from the public world of politics. The privatizing of faith and the marginalizing of religion, sadly, leads to a diminution of the Church’s significance in societal life.

Interestingly, Jurgen Habermas, a secular and agnostic thinker widely recognized as one of the world’s leading intellectuals, and who has written extensively on the public sphere and communicative rationality, believes that “religion has a lot of important things to contribute and to offer in the public sphere.”

Habermas’ reading of religion essentially belies the collective reaction of Duterte’s supporters who, I presume, must have reacted exasperatedly based on an idiotic understanding of what the Church and the public sphere are all about.

For Habermas, the public sphere is a body of “private persons” assembled to discuss matters of “public concern” or “common interest.” It is to be characterized by rational critical discourse and wide participation, despite inequality and differences among contributors. In essence, the public sphere is to be thought of as the articulation and engagement with the ideas and thinking of civil society. With this rational and scientific treatise, must the Church, then, not be allowed a place in the public sphere, including politics?

Hannah Arendt, a German born American political theorist, provides a fascinating insight in what politics is about. She says, “Politics is founded on a human condition of plurality”. In her view, it is not enough to have a collection of private individuals voting separately and anonymously according to their private opinions. Rather, these individuals must be able to see and talk to one another in public, to meet in a public-political space, so that their differences as well as their commonalities can emerge and become the subject of democratic debate.

In an era of pluralism, we should expect different and multi-faceted ideas and principles to emerge. A working democracy is best exemplified by a deep respect for what others have to say and to offer. The President of the Philippines may be very popular and enjoys a high degree of acceptance, but popularity and acceptance should not lead us to believe that he has the monopoly of everything that should be good for the country.

The Church, after all, is not asking the people to believe in one God and three Divine Persons, nor is it commanding everyone to accept the “original sinlessness” of the Blessed Virgin Mary; all it is asking is for them to listen to its policy views, and to respect its right to participate in public debate without its religion and ministers being impugned. I guess this is not too much to ask in a democracy.

Some would strongly argue for the separation of Church and State. But the Church is not advocating that its ministers become lords of the State as they are servants of the Church; to be government legislators as they are implementers of God’s laws; nor judges in civil courts as they are counselors of lost souls. There is no need to overemphasize this doctrine as the Church knows its boundaries. At any rate, those who wrongly use this separation to shut the Church out of the public sphere merely seek to redefine our cultural and religious character as a predominantly Catholic nation and they express hostility towards religion as a legitimate source of political ideas.

Noah Webster, who served in government and was the first to publish the first American dictionary in 1828 using Bible verses as definitions, believed there is no false dichotomy between personal faith and public service. He said, “The moral principles and precepts contained in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of our constitution and laws. All miseries and evils which men suffer proceed directly from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”

It seems that arrogance is the trademark of the strong. When the Roman Empire was falling, its ruthless Emperors and arrogant politicians could do nothing to save it. But fortuitously, Rome was not entirely obliterated. It, in fact, retains some amount of relevance to this day and it is simply because of one enduring institution, the Roman Catholic Church.

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