The Long View: Faith and morals

Faith and morals 
Manuel L. Quezon III Philippine Daily Inquirer

July 24, 2008



Just the other night, I heard an interesting story about how President Ferdinand Marcos kept the Catholic Church hierarchy in check. Every time the bishops began to raise questions about martial law, he would make noises about allowing divorce in the country. For years and years this was enough to make the bishops pipe down. In the end, of course, the bishops withdrew the Mandate of Heaven from Marcos, and he fell from power.

They did it one more time, to President Joseph Estrada. But in recent years, the hierarchy has evolved (or regressed) from being the arbiters of whether our rulers enjoyed (or had lost) the Mandate of Heaven to cozying up to the state in order to use secular law to buttress their moral authority. It is this coziness in former times that led Denis Diderot to famously declare: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

Our founding fathers, from different walks of life, were united by their opposition to “frailocracy,” which was why, as our first president was sworn into office, the altar at Malolos town was hidden behind a curtain. A hundred years later, Joseph Estrada would take his oath of office in the same church, but with the altar taking center stage.

When the bishops withdrew the Mandate of Heaven from Marcos, our development as secular nation basically came to an end. It’s no coincidence that after the EDSA People Power uprising in 1986, Catholic schools began to insist that an invocation should precede the national anthem. This would have been unthinkable from the time of our first revolution against Spain up to the New Society, but after the Miracle of EDSA, times changed. I recall one fierce nun, when I objected to prayers preceding the national anthem, hissing at me, “God above country!” Which made me rejoin that this would reduce Filipinos who did not believe in the nun’s God to the level of second-class citizens.

But then our flag has a triangle derived from the Masonic triangle and which carries associations with the republican motto Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and our national anthem enjoins us to love, and die for, native land, not God. This proclamation of a fundamental, secular identity, it seems, is intolerable to the clergy. So long as there was a residual memory of the birth of our nation and the ideas that brought that nation forth, the Catholic hierarchy had to submit.

But with the fading of the instinctive, and aggressive, insistence on the separation of Church and State that used to characterize our leaders and society, the Church could once again flex its muscles: no coincidence, again, that when Ramon Magsaysay became the first president to publicly take part in a Catholic national festival, it was also the era when boldly Catholic-oriented candidates were running for office, and the passage of the Noli-Fili law became only a symbolic victory—resisted, to this day, in some Catholic schools by means of a token compliance with its provisions.

The separation of Church and State, of course, does not mean that religion has no role in our democratic society. It only means that no religion can enjoy preferential treatment to the disadvantage of others. For example, membership in a particular church or sect can’t be a precondition for appointive or elected office. One’s faith is supposed to be neither aid nor hindrance to the exercise of citizenship. In some cases, the State has even relaxed its rules in order to satisfy the requirements of individual religious conscience, such as excusing Jehovah’s Witnesses from participating in flag ceremonies.

If our secular state treads carefully so as to ensure that religious freedom (and freedom of conscience) is respected, particularly in the case of religious practices by minorities, it is less careful about the religion practiced by the majority of Filipinos. This is what sets the question of the separation of Church and State with regard to the Catholic hierarchy apart—it is the dominant religion, with a claim to the minds and hearts of a majority of our fellow citizens. The faith and morals of Catholics happen to be the articles of faith of the majority—and we are a nation that subscribes to the principle that questions of policy and leadership are best solved by invoking majority rule.

When the faith and morals, then, of the majority are endangered by what are perceived as minority-inspired proposals, what alternative does the majority have but to mobilize the faithful?

The story goes that when postwar Italy was in danger of having a communist government, Pius XII ordered even cloistered nuns, who’d formerly shunned elections, to go out and vote. Yet secularism and liberalism have swept Europe, turning the European heartland of Catholicism into mission territory in the same manner that the cradle of Christianity now only has a tiny Christian minority. This is the clear and present danger our Catholic hierarchy devoutly wishes to prevent from happening here. And so we have what we see: the mobilizing of the faithful to prevent the passage of a law offensive to Catholic principles.

At the very least the hierarchy not only has the right, but the duty, to mobilize. It is up to the faithful whether they will follow their shepherds’ lead. Personally, I do not think it either desirable or productive to question Catholics on questions of faith or morals: Any serious Catholic is under the same obligation as any decent Filipino to defend his principles, to the death, if need be. To demand of Catholics that they restrict the application of their faith and morals to the confines of their homes and churches is essentially to ask them to commit apostasy.

But it is fair and just to remind the hierarchy and the rest of the Catholic citizenry that our Republic does not exist for Catholics alone, and this means that their faith and morals cannot be made the exclusive basis for state policy.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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