Church-state tensions on human rights | Inquirer Opinion

Church-state tensions on human rights

Speaking directly to clerics, President Duterte, in his first State of the Nation Address, said: “While I am a stickler for the principle of separation between church and state, I believe quite strongly that there should never be a separation between God and state.”

The remark was welcomed by those who inferred from it that the President was echoing the idea that while the church and the state must be separate as institutions, both are subject to God.


The separation principle was first enshrined in the US Constitution, a cultural product of the Pilgrim Fathers who were largely Puritans and had memories of religious persecution in Europe, where power was used to hound dissenters to the state religion. The notion of religious freedom is a direct descendant of ideas brought forth by the Reformation in the 16th century. The Reformers held that the church and the state are equally sovereign in their own spheres, a reaction to the medieval struggle for supremacy between the monarchy and the papacy. The pope may not tell the king how to run state affairs, and the king may not encroach on matters of faith and clerical affairs.

That “God cannot be separated from affairs of the state” is a bit more messy in actual practice. One reason is that God rules in all of life and cannot be fenced in by secularists into a privatized compartment called “religion.” In truth, what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God overlap. Ultimately, all things belong to God and are accountable to him. Luther’s doctrine of the “two swords” can be applied only to the institutional aspects of state-church relationship, but not to individuals’ moral choices, nor to the church’s prophetic role as conscience if society.


Tension occurs when the laws of the political realm—like the Reproductive Health Law—happen to conflict with what the church perceives to be moral laws in the spiritual realm. What is “moral” to various sectors of society is contentious enough. More complications arise when the state lets loose forces that operate beyond the pale even of civil law, like the campaign against drugs and the rising body count of those killed on mere suspicion of being drug users and pushers. Whether intended or not, the President, by his mere pronouncements, has unleashed a deadly scourge, both legal and extralegal, that now sows death and terror in the streets. Against this, the church certainly has an obligation to raise its voice.

There are those who tend to be acquiescent and see the human toll as collateral damage that can be countenanced under the principle of “the greater good for the greater number.” Note that most of the victims are poor and considered scum and a burden to society. It is this kind of utilitarian social engineering that eventually leads to the mass salvaging under authoritarian regimes like that of Ferdinand Marcos, killing fields in the name of “the Revolution,” the purging of intellectuals under China’s “cultural revolution,” or the mother of all genocide—Hitler’s project of purifying the Aryan race by annihilating the Jews.

In all these, we see the horrific consequences of readily subordinating the value of one human life to an abstract collective and its imaginary good. As Arthur Koestler once put it, some of us tend to see the individual as “a multitude of one million divided by one million,” an abstract unit that can be plus or minus depending on its usefulness to our social causes. In contrast to this social arithmetic, the church stands on the belief that one human life is precious to God, irrespective of social class or utility to society. The Shepherd will leave his flock of 99 sheep to search for the one lost sheep, and there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 self-righteous prigs who do not see themselves as needing repentance.

It is this fundamental sense of the value and inviolability of the human person which makes the church pertinacious in its insistence that the Duterte administration should desist from giving its operatives the license to kill. The church sources its dissent and disquiet from a conviction deeper than mere judicial-rights thinking as it has developed in the West.

It is worth noting that the language of “rights” and “due process” is unfortunately without much meaning in a context where people are fed up with the state’s ineffectual law enforcement and the poor do not even hope for justice. Jennilyn Olayres, who cradled the lifeless body of her partner Michael Siaron in a now viral photograph which uncannily resembled the Pieta and summoned resonances, put into words what perhaps is most representative of the voice of the poor on this issue: “Alam ko na hindi ko makukuha ang hustisya para sa asawa ko… Malinis lang ang pangalan ng asawa ko, malaking bagay na para sa akin.” She knew she would not get justice for him; just to clear his name would be enough.

This is a cry for something deeper than mere legal vindication. It is the human longing to be accounted as decent, in the teeth of squalor or despair asserting itself still as not without dignity and honor in the eyes of one’s community.

What the church means by “human rights” is deeper than the merely political; it is rooted in the fact that people are made in the image of God, and find in this their ultimate value. As


Mr. Duterte himself recognizes, the church cannot separate God from its civic responsibility. As the French sociologist Jacques Ellul writes:

“The Church is summoned in the course of human history to speak a discerning word to each concrete situation, ‘These are the rights of man here and now. This is what man may demand. This is what he needs to be protected from.’ This discerning word is part of the Church’s proclamation.”

In pronouncing it, the church addresses itself to society and to the state. It is the mouthpiece of man’s exigencies. Normally, the church should not leave it to revolutionary movements to assert human rights. Rather, it should claim them before man is driven to despair.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Catholic Church, dignity, drugs, human rights, Jennilyn Olayres, Killings, Michael Siaron, Rodrigo Duterte
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