The Church finds a new voice
For several days now, Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, who has done more than most historians to make the events, personalities, and issues of the past come to life and become relevant again, has been writing on the oft-dramatic and tension-filled confrontations between Spanish-era governors general and archbishops of Manila.
The accounts tell fascinating tales, such as that of an archbishop seeking sanctuary in a church while holding aloft a monstrance. With soldiers surrounding the church and blocking all exits, the siege lasted for days, with the heavy container strapped to the archbishop’s arms lest it fall to the ground. In last Friday’s column, Ocampo retells the conflict that ensued after church authorities granted sanctuary to an accused killer. A contentious stand-off resulted in the bishop’s exile and the excommunication of the governor. Then, of course, there is the famous 19th-century painting “The Assassination of Governor Bustamante” by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo that depicts the killing of the governor general by a mob of friars.
While not as fervid and fraught as the events recalled by Ocampo, the current imbroglio between faith leaders including Catholic Church officials and the Duterte administration is once again testing the fragile boundary demarcating the “separation of Church and State.”
Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo recently denounced a recent pastoral letter issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) that pointed out the Duterte’s administration’s “pattern of intimidation” as exemplified by the passage of the anti-terrorism law, which broadens the definition of terrorism and institutes new processes of arrest and detention of suspects that a slew of legal experts have said are dangerous and even unconstitutional. The letter, Panelo declared, “appears to have violated” the constitutionally mandated “separation of the Church and the State.”
In response, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo dared the Palace official to file charges against Church leaders, asking: “Don’t we have a right to speak sa mga kakulangan ng pamahalaan? Dahil ba kami ay simbahan hindi na kami puwedeng magsalita?”
Fr. Jerome Secillano, CBCP spokesperson, clarified that “separation between Church and State” is actually directed at the State, a prohibition against the government favoring one church over others by establishing a state religion or by allocating public funds to favor one church.
Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, stated that “priests and bishops, as citizens of the country, have the right to freedom of speech.” Father Secillano added that the principle “doesn’t actually bar Church leaders from expressing their political opinions.” Besides, he added, “if the Church does not anymore speak about all these matters and there are wrongs being committed left and right, then we cease to exist as a Church.”
The CBCP statement, signed by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan who is acting president of the bishops’ conference, observed that “while a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water.”
The seemingly newfound outspoken ways of the Catholic hierarchy have found a sympathetic ear and supportive voice from the leaders of other faith groups, and the show of solidarity is striking. “It is the moral duty and prophetic task of every Christian, especially church leaders, to announce and denounce the ills of society,” said Bishop Reuel Norman O. Marigza, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, which is composed of “mainline” Protestant churches in the country.
The fact that at the helm of the two most prominent Catholic institutions are well-known progressive clerics — Bishops Pabillo and David — should explain the growing resolve and forthrightness in the Church’s voice. Both have long been denouncing government repression, especially the war on drugs that has resulted in the killings of thousands of suspects. Malacañang, in complaining about the CBCP’s supposed breach of the Church-State divide, also conveniently forgets that the President himself had publicly disparaged core Catholic beliefs, incited violence against bishops, and trafficked in malign gossip against Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of timing, with public anger coming to a head against the government’s harsh methods and misplaced priorities in the face of the country’s most serious public health crisis, which has also metamorphosed into the gravest economic reversal in decades. In any event, it’s a welcome development that, it is hoped, emboldens the faithful and all conscientious citizens alike to think, to reflect, and then to act to realize their most fervent dreams for the country.
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