No innocents lost in this Eden
Using public funds to buy a luxury SUV for a bishop’s birthday request, that has got to be a no-brainer. The Constitution categorically states: “No public money or property shall be appropriated … directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any church … or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, other religious teacher, or dignitary as such ….”
How categorical can it be? Directly or indirectly. Use, benefit or support. Any church or priest. That language is all-encompassing. It’s all got to do with the prohibited recipient: the bishopric donee of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s bonanza. Under that rule, it is no excuse that the lucky bishops will use their 4×4 SUVs to deliver relief goods to their desperate flock in the boondocks.
First, that excuse is available only under the more refined three-fold test of the Establishment Clause, namely: one, that government money be used for a secular purpose; two, that its primary effect is neither to advance or inhibit religion; and three, that it will not entail “excessive entanglement” between the state and a religion.
Here we don’t even get to apply that test. What is at stake is not the broad language of the Establishment Clause (“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion ….”) but the specific and prohibitory language on the religious use of public funds (“No public money ….”). In interpreting laws, the specific and the prohibitory prevail over the general and the permissive. As the saying goes, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
Second, the bishop’s SUV will still fail the three-fold test. Sure it will meet the first prong: delivering relief goods is obviously a “secular purpose.” But it’s all downhill from there. It will “advance [a] religion” because it will endear the bishop’s church to those barangays when the mighty 4×4 drives in through rain and fog to bring food for the hungry and medicine for the sick.
Granting that religious advancement is not the “primary effect,” it will still fail the third prong. The only way to ensure that the SUV is used only to deliver relief goods and not to ferry the guests at the bishop’s birthday bash is for the state to monitor the bishop’s daily schedule. This is precisely the “excessive entanglement” that the third prong seeks to avoid.
Either way, when Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos says that the P1.7 million SUV was given to him as a birthday gift which he requested for his community service, he ran afoul of the Philippine Constitution.
But the debate doesn’t end there. Let’s face it. In Roman Catholic Philippines especially, there’s the inevitable overlap between the welfare functions of the state and the ministering mission of the faith. And how can we object when secular and religious powers exercise a “preferential option for the poor”?
The days when the state limited itself to traditional “nightwatchman” functions—running the police, manning the armies, maintaining the jails—is long over. In the age of the welfare state, governments are expected to take care of its citizen’s workaday needs: schools for children, hospitals for the sick, land for the peasants, homes for the homeless, clean air and rivers for all. In the current controversy, clearly all that is properly within the scope of the PCSO’s functions.
Mercifully the Catholic Church has taken a parallel path. It used to be that the Word made Flesh preferred to deny the flesh and focus mainly on the Word. Today it has stepped outside the temples and gone beyond ritual and ceremony. It used to be that the goal was to save souls and fixate on the afterlife. Today the Church has come around to saving lives and securing God’s justice in this life, in this world.
How else can we explain Gawad Kalinga, originally organized by the Couples for Christ? Or Task Force Detainees, pioneered by the Association of Major Religious Superiors during the long, dark night of martial law? Or Preda Foundation, started by Fr. Shay Cullen, an Irish Columban missionary (and a Filipino couple, Merle and Alex Hermoso)? Or more recently, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting? How indeed can anyone object not just to their noble work but also the prospect of them getting some government support?
But that precisely is the question. Public money could have gone to GK’s low-income housing, or medical care for TFD’s human rights victims, or rehabilitation for the victimized children under Preda’s care, but it did not.
While there is no room for debate on the correctness of publicly-funded luxury goods for clerics, there is such room when it comes to faith-based activist organizations. These organizations must deliberately surface their lay and secular character, while being candid about their religious inspiration. They have merely stepped into the vacuum left by secular movements that have ceased to embody the public man, the “species-being.”
Bishop Pueblos has disclosed that he got the SUV around the time when Arroyo appointed him to a fact-finding team on extrajudicial killings. Whichever way that team adjudged the killings, and whichever came first, the SUV birthday gift or the appointment, the timing is woefully suspect.
Thomas Jefferson spoke of the “garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The sad lesson here is that it’s not about public funds as forbidden fruit, or clerics as forbidden fruit eaters. It’s that, even in the garden of the church, there was no innocence to be lost.
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