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Must the Church speak on socio-political issues?


By Msgr. Lope C Robredillo, SThD

ON the November 8, 2016 decision of the Supreme Court to allow the remains of Ferdinand Marcos to be interred at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, published a quote from Abp Socrates Villegas, CBCP President: “I am very sad. The burial is an insult to the EDSA spirit. It mocks our fight to restore democracy. I am puzzled and hurt and in great grief. It calls for greater courage to make the full truth of the dictatorship known.” Comments were mixed. But typical of those who were against the Archbishop’s statement was a netizen of the social media who goes by the name of Salty Nooblet Cyrus. Far from arguing on the merits of the quotation, she/he zeroed in on authority and right to make such a statement on a political issue, opining that the separation of Church and State must be observed, and that Church authorities must confine themselves to the spiritual realm.

Contra Arguments on Church’s Socio-Political Involvement
Must Church leaders not speak on social and political issues? It might be of help to take a look at the most common objections.

Separation of Church and State. The first one, the separation of Church and State, is probably one of the least understood principle in Church-State relations. Quite often, ordinary people take it to mean simply that the Church should not interfere in the affairs of the State, just as the State should not meddle in the concerns of the Church. Thus, when some Church officials denounce government policies, some immediately call the denunciation a violation of the separation of Church and State. If anything, they expect Church officials to be silent when it comes to politics, social and political policies and programs.

This is far removed from its meaning. The principle, enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution, Art II, Sec 6, finds its explication on the bill of rights in Art III, Sec 5, stating that no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting its free exercise. It guarantees free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. Philippine jurisprudence has long interpreted the principle along this line, and has never construed it to signify suppression of public voice of the Church.

Which things are Caesar’s? Oftentimes, people object to the Church’s interference in political and societal affairs on the ground that Jesus himself clearly forbade it. Tacked to that claim is the saying, “Render to Caesar the thing that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). This has been interpreted in various ways by exegetes, ranging from those who take it as counselling obedience to political authorities to those who see it as an advise on non-payment of taxes (see my book, Jesusological Foundations for a Theology of Social Transformation). But for many defenders of the status quo, the interpretation of S. Dummellow is representative: Jesus so sympathized with the Roman imperialism that loyalty and submission to civil power are a duty binding in conscience.

Today, no exegete worth his salt would take it that way. Practitioners of historical-critical method have shown that, interpreted in its historical context, the emphasis of the saying is on the second segment. Writes Richard Horsley in his book, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: The key in the saying “must lie in what is Caesar’s and what is God’s… Jesus would appear to be consistent with later rabbinic teaching in this regard… that everything is God’s.” Dorothy Day is quoted to have said that if we render to God everything that belongs to God, there would be nothing left to Caesar. Clearly, the passage cannot be taken as a proof-text for the separation of Church and State. At least, no respectable exegete, either Catholic or Protestant, would invoke the saying to silence the public voice of the Church.

Religion as a Private Affair. A third objection to the Church’s public voice in matters of social and political issues is the idea that religion should be confined to individual morality, that it should only be about private faith and personal piety, church worship and affairs of the sacristy. For some, especially those influenced by Lutheran tradition, the Church should be concerned only with individual’s reconciliation with God, it has to prioritize salvation of the soul, and only discuss the Bible, not social and political questions. In effect, the Church cannot apply any religious teaching on political and social life, much less in a critical way. It cannot challenge the existing public order.

But that is a caricature of religion. At the heart of Christian religion is the Gospel that has to be announced as good news, but as Gustavo Gutierrez argues in his A Theology of Liberation, “the annunciation of the Gospel, precisely insofar as it is a message of total love, has an inescapable political dimension, because it is addressed to people who live within a fabric of social relationships, which, in our case, keep them in a subhuman condition.” The Gospel has always a direct consequence for social and political life. For this reason, religion cannot be confined to purely private affair nor entirely to other-worldly concerns.

The Church and Socio-Political Issues of the Day

That brings us to the role of the Church in social and political affairs. For, if the Gospel has an immediate effect on the life of society, the Church, being herald of the Gospel, cannot ignore the socio-political issues of the day. Its involvement, as noted in the CBCP Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Politics (41-42), can be looked at from different angles.

The Gospel and Politics. In the Bible, gospel refers first of all to the Kingdom of God, which summarizes the mission of Jesus. According to the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10), it means doing God’s will on earth; God’s will has to be done not only in the religious, social and economic life of the people, but also in their political life, because politics is an activity in the world. The kingdom-values of peace, justice, freedom, mercy and reconciliation that the prophets spoke of have to be made visible, if not prevail, in all these aspects of life. But if Jesus has commanded his disciples to bring the gospel to all the world, there is no legitimate reason why it cannot proclaim it in the field of social and political life, since there is no aspect of human life that cannot be a field of evangelization. Politics has to be transformed and nurtured in the light of the Gospel.

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