Sounding Board

Clerics and the political process

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The debates on the reproductive health bill have died down, and now there is toe-in-the-water talk about divorce. Some friends have asked me what role clerics should have in matters involving controversial legislation. Let me be more general, however, and ask instead about clerical involvement in public affairs.

One person who expressed in very strong language his opposition to religious involvement in public affairs was Barry Goldwater. He said: “The great decisions of government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions… We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of the state from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups, and we mustn’t stop now!”

Goldwater could not have been more inaccurate historically. Whether viewed against American history or Philippine history, the statement is false. Churches have influenced American politics from the days of Jefferson down to the prophetic preaching of Martin Luther King and the pastoral letters of the American bishops. Likewise in the Philippines, religion has been involved in politics from the days of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora down to the pastoral letters on social justice and on the conduct of elections. I do not see this involvement coming to an end. Depending on circumstances, it can even intensify, as it did in the RH-bill debates. But it is legitimate to ask how clerical activism fits into the Philippine political culture.

A question often asked is whether a cleric may run for public office. There is no constitutional obstacle to that. There was a Supreme Court decision under the 1935 Constitution which said that clerics, much like firemen and policemen, should not run for public office. But the decision was actually a minority decision upholding a statutory provision at the time when the Constitution required a two-thirds vote of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional.

As to the obstacle arising from Canon Law prescription, it is not insurmountable. What remains, therefore, is a question of prudence or propriety. This writer’s view on this is that in principle, a cleric must choose between being fully a Church minister or a public official. Combining the two can be both religiously and politically unhealthy.

Another important question touches on the substance of the preaching of clergy and religious. Preaching does not simply refer to sermons and homilies in church. Included are public or semipublic pronouncements such as blogs or columns.

Certainly, no one will deny the clergy the right to preach about morality. That is their task and they would be remiss in their duties if they habitually avoid moral issues. This is all part of ordinary religious preaching.

It is a different matter, however, when out of general moral teachings, specific public positions are advocated—such as impeachment, Charter change, the banning of “jueteng” or even the RH bill. Of course, there are specific conclusions that flow naturally from some general positions. But specific practical conclusions do not always come out naturally. The fact that an act is clearly sinful does not lead to the easy conclusion that therefore it should be penalized. If it were, our prisons would be more crowded than they already are.

Why is it that people sometimes do not want their religious leaders to tell them what specific actions they should take or what political conclusions they should make? It is all part and parcel of being a citizen of a democracy. “I have my own mind. Don’t insult me. Let me draw my own conclusion!”

This is a perfectly legitimate attitude. To avoid alienating people who have such an attitude, a cleric must carefully and respectfully present his conclusions. If the practical conclusions are presented as the product of one’s own study and are presented for people to agree or disagree with, then no one should feel insulted or offended. Much less should a cleric threaten hellfire against those who disagree.

Another objection to specific pronouncements by clerics is that their competence and their access to needed facts for drawing conclusions are limited. Rarely is their expertise related to economics, law, sociology, or politics, etc. Specific conclusions about the morality of economic or political decisions can depend very much on the dynamics and nuances of these specialized fields. If the cleric has competence in these fields, then his conclusion can be more persuasive.

However, it is also good to remember that even the people whose task it is to make important decisions that impact on the lives of people—such as legislators—do not always have the needed expertise on what they may be talking about. Some easily talk through their hat. But this is no reason for a cleric to be reckless.

While a cleric, however, should not be reckless in his statements, neither should he be inordinately pusillanimous. There are political and economic decisions that have great moral significance. These should be faced, with prudence, yes, but not with cowardly avoidance of conflict. Risks are part of the apostolic mission.

Clerics do make mistakes, out of carelessness, perhaps, or through excess of zeal, or even for more foolish reasons. But in my own estimate, mistakes and all, the courageous stand of clerics and churches can do much harm. The courage of the churches in the Philippines has made a significant contribution to improving economic and political life.

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