For many who had expected the July 13 Senate hearing with the “Pajero 7 bishops” to be more than just an occasion for face-saving apologies or Pilatean hand-washing on the part of persons involved in the PCSO plunder scandal, the whole affair turned out to be a letdown. What could have been a forum for investigating in aid of legislation public officials’ conduct in appropriating GOCC (government owned or controlled corporations) funds for the wealthiest and biggest sect, instead, became a pretext for condoning the routine practice of showering administration-friendly religious leaders with state largesse on secular grounds!
Senator Miriam Santiago virtually acquitted the “Pajero bishops” and preempted all discussion, by pointing out to her colleagues the secular purpose behind the bestowal of funds on the bishops and by berating the COA officers, mass media practitioners and common people for their supposed intrusion into the Supreme Court’s dominion as the ultimate interpreter and arbiter of legal issues concerning church-state relations. Though Santiago made a number of valid comments regarding discretionary powers that enabled incumbent public officials and PCSO officers to exploit charity funds for private gain and partisan political uses, she buried the whole issue of clergy influence-peddling and preferential treatment of administration-friendly sects beneath a mountain of legal apologies for religion’s presumptive right to state support.
After Santiago’s pandering speech to clergy sensibilities, the Senate hearing followed a descending path, with Enrile casting the whole blame on the former PCSO officers, Estrada cracking a few quips about the propriety of a bishop’s acceptance of tainted funds from the Devil, Bishop Pueblo explaining his reasons for backing GMA and assuring P-noy of his support, and finally, PCSO Chair Margie Juico apologizing to the bishops for her scandal-causing tautological lapses (confusing second-hand pickups with brand new big name luxury SUVs) and assuring the Bishops of PCSO’s openness towards supporting the Catholic Church’s charity work for the poor.
The Church and the State
The problem of church-state relations in our country does not simply lie with corrupt public officials and influence-peddling religious leaders who take advantage of their respective offices. The problem lies with the Philippine State itself which has yet to shed off its feudal and colonial connections that bestow undue economic, cultural and quasi-political privileges on religious institutions, not accountable to the citizenry. Modern democracy is the fruit of the common people’s earthly struggles for social justice, welfare and development, against politico-economic systems that perpetuate elite monopoly over resources and power without accountability. The democratic ideals and values of freedom, equality, justice and fellowship draw their strength from the ascendancy of reason and science as guides to public morality and public policy, over and against supernatural creeds that have historically nurtured despotic regimes that self-servingly claim a mandate from god and his ordained hierarchy of nature.
Ironically, it was the February 1986 Uprising that paved the way for the adoption of our present Constitution which is riddled with conflicting provisions concerning democratic rights and state guaranteed religious privileges. Due to the ruin wreaked by state terror on mass media, social institutions and people’s organizations during the darkest years of martial law, many progressive priests either joined the underground movement or made use of their offices and social action programs to resist the Marcos regime, aid the peasants, workers and urban poor in their struggles for ameliorative reform, democracy, and justice for the disappeared or incarcerated victims of the regime, often against their superiors’ desire for amity with the dictatorship. The murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983 triggered a shift in the bishops’ critical collaboration posture towards the Marcos regime, as unprecedented mass outrage over the atrocity moved hundreds of thousands in street protests throughout the country including Makati its key financial district. The political awakening of the normally conservative middle class and clergy marked a huge advance towards the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, but it also imposed severe limits on how far democratic change could proceed. Though the Catholic hierarchy in the person of Jaime Cardinal Sin played a crucial role in the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986 — when it was already enfeebled by fourteen years of popular struggles for democratic change, armed rebellion, intra-ruling class conflict, and chronic crisis — they played an inordinate role in the making of the Constitution to an extent unequaled by any church in past regimes.
Given their mixed composition, the drafters of the basic law came up with a Constitution replete with contradictory principles that endanger the state’s commitment to democracy, namely:
(1) All persons have the right to freely practice their respective creeds or worldviews, to the extent consistent with the rights of everyone else. Article III, Section 4 of the Bill of Rights declares that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances”. Section 5 of the same article further affirms: “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”
(2) Though Article II section 6 declares that the “separation of church and state shall be inviolable”, other provisions bestow on religious institutions pecuniary privileges and special accommodations that comparable secular institutions cannot claim on a presumptive basis. Section 28(3) of Article VI of the Constitution limits tax exemptions to church-owned assets and improvements “actually, directly, and exclusively used for religious, charitable, or educational purposes” while section 29(2) of the same article restricts state support for religion to funds for religious ministers “assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium”. Though these provisions apparently limit state support for the church to secular purposes wherein church and state have a mutual interest, they in fact transform into enforceable law religious beliefs that are discriminatory and amenable to slipshod sectarian interpretation. Religious groups invoke the separation of church and state doctrine, not to protect the state and society against undue sectarian influence, but rather to hinder the state from enacting measures beneficial to society at large but possibly injurious to their sectarian interests.
God in the Machine
The drafters of the 1935, 1973, and 1899 Constitutions were content to invoke “Divine Providence” or “Sovereign Legislator of the Universe” in deference to adherents of different faiths, Buddhists, deists, pantheists, animists and even agnostics and atheists who accept “Divine Providence” as a metaphor for the sum total of the laws of the physical universe. In contrast, the 1987 Constitution invokes the “almighty God” in apparent reference to the God of three major monotheistic faiths, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
But the one provision of the 1987 Constitution that imposes sectarian religious beliefs about life and socially constructed institutions is Section 12 of Article III: “The state recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception. The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support of the Government.” This provision has been abused by ultra-conservative and reactionary religious groups to sabotage every progressive proposal from the Magna Carta of Women to the present Reproductive Health and Divorce Bills which aims to empower and liberate women, spouses and children from misogynistic moral codes embedded in numerous families and religious sects.
If the slippery and unscientific notions of “conception” and the “unborn” were construed to elevate the status of a still non-sensient human cell to that of a human person, then every sexual act that involves the use of contraceptives could indeed be labeled as “abortion”, which is illegal under Philippine laws. It was on this basis that former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza issued an ordinance banning the provision of contraceptive pills, condoms and other reproductive health services in public hospitals and clinics. Serious public discussion of abortion as an option for women and child rape victims afflicted with unwanted and life-threatening pregnancies becomes taboo even among liberals and progressives.
Likewise, the invocation of the family as a sacred “autonomous social institution” renders bad marital unions and dysfunctional family traditions impervious to reform and unresponsive to the needs of real life couples and their children. Without divorce and its attendant provision of alimony, spouses who have no love for each other, abused spouses and abused children who need a violence-free family environment, are denied the means of getting out of their predicament and starting life anew with a new pair of spouses like people trapped in a burning building without a fire escape.
The principle stated in number (1) is unassailable but is often mislabeled by religious interest groups as “freedom of religion”. The democratic principles and rights enumerated in Articles II and III are for all citizens and will hold true independently of any religious doctrine. Regardless of whether an individual person is a believer or an unbeliever, male or female, gay or straight, leftist or rightist, colored or white, and endowed or not endowed with an immortal soul, he or she should be entitled to the same rights to life, health, freedom of expression and association, and pursuit of happiness as everyone else.
Regardless of the factuality or fictitiousness of any god or gods, people will discern common human values and affirm the need for reason-based state laws vital to the maintenance of societal health and civilized life. Unlike principle number (1), principle number (2) is philosophically unsound, legally incoherent, and morally indefensible, because it automatically confers undue privileges on members of influential sects and unjustly foists on unbelievers the duty to conform to worldviews other than their own. Consider the following cases that demonstrate the feebleness of legal and political doctrines that purportedly extol complete freedom of religion and non-discriminatory policy towards all creeds and sects.
In the U.S.A., Mormon parents can raise their children according to their faith but may face criminal prosecution for denying their sick children proper medical treatment on account of their belief in the sinfulness of blood transfusion. A woman, not of the Muslim faith, marries a Muslim man and freely decides to settle with her husband in an Islamic state such as Saudi Arabia or Iran (as distinguished from non-theocratic, secular Muslim states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Turkey); however, by doing so, she loses her legal right to publicly practice her faith as well submits to her husband’s superior status which could later expose her to the risk of losing custody over her children in the event that her husband divorces her on whatever grounds.
In Australia, an Aboriginal man pleads not guilty to the charge of child-sexual abuse, invoking his right to initiate his victim into full manhood through sodomy in accordance with his tribe’s customary laws; the court finds him guilty and promptly sends him to prison, on the ground that the accused person’s tribe has no such customary laws. Indeed, prison serves him right! But what if sexual initiation rites for pubescent boys were really part of the convicted child abuser’s custom and belief system as they were and still are among the Keraki and Sambia tribes of New Guinea?
All of these extreme examples prove that “freedom of religion” exists only to the extent that the religious acts and beliefs in question concur with or bear no consequence to the laws and values of society at large. Though individuals may invoke private conscience, popular religious beliefs, ancient traditions or ethnic customs as a basis for state laws, it would be wiser and sounder to ground these laws and norms on shared secular moral values and objectively appraisable societal ideals.
(Not So Good) God
In our country, separation of church and state is routinely violated in government offices, public schools, the Courts, the Cabinet and the Congress itself through opening prayers for every occasion and blatant display of religious symbols and messages alongside national icons and on government advertisements. One wall graffiti co-sponsored by the Manila local government and the Philippine National Police urges the youth to “Get high on God not on drugs!”, indeed a catchy slogan aptly comparing religious devotion with narcotics addiction but a poor remedy to a deeply rooted social and political problem. While secular militant organizations have to hurdle bureaucratic barriers to secure a permit for holding a rally at a public place, influential religious sects get a free pass as well as government assistance for holding day-long religious ceremonies and processions at the cost of traffic jams, deaths by stroke or trampling and rise in street crimes due to inordinate deployment of police personnel to celebration sites for crowd management.
Due to former Mayor Atienza’s ban on contraceptives in public hospitals, people have to undergo a tedious litigation process to fight for rights they are entitled to and had enjoyed for years under previous administrations. Students who get pregnant out of wedlock are summarily expelled by Catholic schools. Doctors deny women timely and appropriate medical treatment on suspicion that they had deliberately attempted abortion and that it is against their faith and the law to condone let alone perform abortion. Bishops bypass normal procedures for obtaining funds from the PCSO and PAGCOR in spite of their church’s billions and moral indictment of gambling, while poor people endure long queues under drizzling rain or sweltering heat at PCSO offices just to obtain paltry sums for medical treatment. Religious ministers slander their counterparts in rival faiths on national TV without fear of recrimination, but an obscure author like Ross Tipon gets slapped with a lawsuit for allegedly defaming the INC and its founder and seeking to incite religious unrest through his still unpublished but narrowly circulated book. Though politicians shun debate on church-state relations as a futile exercise in “preaching to fellow believers (or unbelievers)” and “antagonizing believers” (sect-affiliated religious voters), they deliberately ignore the adverse impact of church interventionism and influence-peddling on a wide range of societal concerns such as taxation, public access to information about the socio-economic profile of public officials and patterns of revenue allocation and expenditure, public health, education, sexual ethics, family relations and so forth.
Since religionists and church-pandering politicians have turned our state laws on their head, it is imperative upon democrats, secular humanists, freethinkers and other progressive activists to turn these laws right side-up and fight for progressive reforms at both national and local levels. Since we cannot wait on our vacillating national leaders and lawmakers to act on their campaign commitments and our demands for progressive measures such as the Reproductive Health and Right of Information bills, we have to build up critical mass for these reforms through advocacy, popular education, organizing work and direct action on urgent social issues in our schools, workplaces, social organizations, civic institutions and barangays.