Separation of Church and State

The current controversy about the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) speaking out on issues and government policy that it considers important is a “tempest in a teapot”—an idiom meaning a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion.

It might be well to remember that for virtually all of recorded history, leaders—from great kings in magnificent palaces to tribal leaders underneath the jungle canopy—sought to establish their credibility by invoking Divine Rights. On the timeline of history, the separation of religion (Church) and government started only a few moments ago.

The ancient Egyptian pharaohs from 5,000 years ago were themselves considered “gods”. Shintoists considered the Japanese emperor a divine descendant of the goddess Amaterasu until 1946. Looking back even only a few hundred years past, there was no line between religion and the state.

The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines declares: “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable” and “no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This is taken from the first legal prohibition of the government establishing a state religion found in the US Constitution. Many different religious groups fled to the colonies in North America to avoid religious persecution, and were not about to start over the same way again.

No one with any common sense would deny the absolute right of the CBCP or any individual or group to exercise its rights of freedom of speech and opinion. The argument that the CBCP only speaks for a small segment of Philippine society is immaterial also. That same 1987 Constitution, which enshrined the separation of Church and State, also enshrined party-list representation, which protects special interest groups.

The 2016 election saw the PBA Party-list receive the ability not only to give its input on proposed legislation, but to vote for or against laws. By its own mandate, PBA is “responsive to the interests of Filipino athletes”. Aren’t those Filipino athletes already served in Congress by their locally elected representative? What particular broad national interest is served by the Manila Teachers’ Savings and Loan Association having its own congressional seat?

As with the 46 special-interest organizations that won in the party-list elections, the CBCP speaks for its particular constituency, and is no different than the ABS-Arts, Business and Science Professionals.

But it is the “religious element of the CBCP that seems to get people upset. Would there be the same kind of discussion if the CBCP were the initials of the “Camote Buyers Confederation of the Philippines”? To attack the political positions of the CBCP on the grounds that it is a religious organization is wrong.

The current discussion about bringing back capital punishment has absolutely nothing to do with the constitutional guarantee of the separation of Church and State. Further, it is a short walk between stopping a person or group because they hold opinions based on religious belief and stopping those religious beliefs altogether.