The Secular Ideal (Revisited)

This entry dates from November 1, 2008. Originally published in Inquirer Current. See also The Explainer: Church and State Sources from 2006. And Church and State: the Religious Clauses in the Philippine Constitution in another blog. What the entry below did not take into account was, of course, the toll on credibility and authority the long crisis of legitimacy from 2005-2010 took on so many institutions, including the Catholic Church.

(Originally posted with a YouTube link to a video of “Anti DEATHS” rally mounted by Catholic Church in Cebu City last July [2008]: DEATHS is the acronym thought up by the wife of Kit Tatad and represents the Church’s advocacy against “Divorce, Euthanasia, Abortion, Total Family Planning, Homosexual Unions and Sex Education”)

Felipe Medalla some months back recounted to me that whenever President Marcos thought the Catholic hierarchy was becoming too antagonistic, he would make a big to-do about dusting off a draft Presidential Decree instituting divorce in the Philippines. So long as Marcos was at the height of his powers, and there was a Julio Cardinal Rosales to counterbalance Jaime Cardinal Sin, the ploy worked. But as time wore on, and Marcos’ legalism gave way to cruder methods to stay in power, the manner in which he concentrated all power in his hands meant that as his own physical and mental condition decayed, no one beneath him could really do anything except scheme against fellow subordinates. The result was a power vacuum that only the Communists or the Catholic Church could fill -with the hierarchy worried that its clergy were drifting in to the clutches of the Communists.

As I wrote twelve years ago, the Catholic hierarchy exorcised the demons of the Philippine Revolution of 1896 by taking a lead in the People Power Revolution of 1986. Just how thoroughly Church has ended up appropriating the functions of the State is best seen in the opposition, with its reliance on mass mobilizations for masses, and how opposition and administration alike fuss over the hierarchy and whether they will order the Catholic studentry into the streets. Both Marcos and Estrada, traditionally contemptuous of and hostile to the hierarchy, paid the political price, not realize how thoroughly eroded the traditional secular reverence for their office had become. Ramos was more clever; Arroyo, cleverer still, in appreciating that the hierarchy can be upwardly mobile, too, in their aspirations, and if flattered and courted and plied with cash, can become pliable, too, and a source of strength and not subversion to the incumbent.

And yet, the cozy relationship’s being challenged, and the challenge is in the form of a bill. It is 2008, and in comparison to say, 1938, it seems unclear whether secularism is once more resurgent, or whether the Church Militant is poised to be triumphant and retain the privileged position it secured in our national life in 1986. I like viewing things in cycles so let me explain my approach to the problem.

In 1938, Filipino leaders, most of them with memories of the Spanish era still fresh in their minds and themselves heirs to the anticlericalism of both the Propaganda Movement and the Revolution (a shrewd exploration of this can be found in Frederick Marquardt’s 1954 article, Quezon and the Church), debated and ended up defeating the proposal to teach Catholic catechism in the public schools. See The Church, July 2, 1938.

Efforts by Catholics to have catechism taught during class hours in public schools, passed by an obliging National Assembly, ended up vetoed; a line was drawn demarcating the separation of Church and State (a line first established by statute in 1898, thoug even the Malolos Republic seemed more inclined to pursue establishing a national church more along the lines of the England of Henry VIII). This line would hold so long as there were Filipinos alive who remembered the Spanish era and bore the anticlerical attitudes of Filipinos of that time.

The apogee of that generation and its attitude towards Catholicism was the passage of the Rizal Law: see The Church Under Attack, May 5, 1956. Yet victory in Congress -the law was passed, against the impassioned opposition of the Catholic hierarchy and a new generation of bold Catholic apologists in politics- turned out a pyrrhic victory.

You could say the height of the anticlerical era was from 1896 to 1956; and in turn, the Catholic era began in 1956, and peaked in 1986 –with the Edsa Revolution taking on the characteristics of a Marian Deliverance– and, just as the anticlerical era began to wane in 1938 when the National Assembly, indicating how local-minded politicians were willing to take their cues from local prelates, approved religious instruction in the public schools and so showed the sign of political submission to the Catholic hierarchy to come, so did the influence of Catholicism -its naked triumphalism in the wake of Edsa, and its lingering assertion of religious supremacy over the secular, as demonstrated every day by the insistence of Catholic schools in having invocations and prayers come ahead of the national anthem, an act that would have caused a riot seventy, sixty, even forty or thirty years ago— begin to wane at its point of maximum influence, when patently Catholic principles concerning the family and sexuality were enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

The debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, then, has characteristics both modern and ancient: and aspects that echo the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, too. But what too many overlook, I think, is how the Catholic Church is now fighting from a position of strength: not just in terms of organization and the enfeebled notions of citizenship and political identity of the electorate, but also, from a position of statutory advantage.

From the preamble of the Constitution, which dispensed with invocation of a Deist “Sovereign Legislator of the Universe” of 1899, or of the studiously non-denomenational “Divine Providence” in 1935 and 1973, our present Charter invoked “Almighty God,” and despite retaining the official separation of Church and State in Art. II, Sec. 6 (while providing, in the Bill of Rights, Article III, Sec. 5, from any specific Church being favored over the others, while forbidding any limits on the exercise of religion, as much a limit on the State as it is an encouragement to members of any particular faith), the Constitution moves on to providing for Catholic Doctrine as the core principles of the State:

Section 16. The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.

Here lies what is arguable a Constitutional exhortation to limit anything related to health, including reproduction, to the Church-sanctioned Rhythm Method, or “natural” family planning. For this reason, I believe that the debates raging in and out of the blogosphere, in the public sphere and wherever people take either their citizenship or religion seriously, when the debate focuses on the duties versus the rights of individual Catholics as pertains to their conscience, is a waste of time. I say this as a non-practicing Catholic who is entirely uninterested in whether or how people reconcile the tenets of their faith with their political and social conscience. It is a question only of interest to practicing Catholics but no one else (and even for the practicing Catholic, I think it’s futile: either have faith, which is beyond science and reason, or exalt science and reason and become an apostate; there can be no compromise between the two if one actually takes seriously the fate of one’s immortal soul).

So if the question of whether one can salve one’s conscience and not imperil one’s soul is immaterial and irrelevant for non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics, how then, should the question of the Reproductive Health Bill be approached? First, the actual provisions of the bill are no longer relevant or material. I say this, because the bill itself has been turned into a litmus test.

On the part of the Catholic hierarchy, the only choice is whether the bill can be defeated outright in Congress, or so thoroughly amended as to turn it into a law more fully supportive of Church aims. On the part of supporters of the bill, the provisions are less interesting for what they contain -it is, after all, only a law, liable to be enforced more with talk and less with any real action- than for what they represent: an assertion of a non-Catholic, ideally non-sectarian, morality for the state.

The battle lines having been drawn, the battle has been joined and it would be dangerous to prematurely gloat that indications of broad public support for the bill is some sort of death knell for the influence of the Catholic hierarchy in the political sphere.

For an entire generation, Filipinos have been allowed to subordinate the state to God, daily seeing sectarian prayers given priority over the national anthem; this underscores, day in, and day out, the subordination of the state to the Church. While this period -the generation since Edsa- only represents a third of the lifetime of our modern-day political institutions, it encompasses the living memory of fully two-thirds of the population.

In other words, in the generation since Edsa, where God has day in and day out been demonstrated as superior to flag, anthem, and republic, at least half of present-day Filipinos were born and their attitudes towards Church and State, molded; Filipinos reared in the strict subordination of religion to the State, a subordination demanded by historical experience, are the minority.

During this period, when our sense of the proper distinction between God and Country has been literally turned on its head, our civic sense, our political consciousness as a people, has been enfeebled. The weakening of our political institutions and the political culture upon which the proper functioning of those institutions is premised, also means that in the absence of a vibrant civil society, the best-organized, best-motivated, and best-funded sectors can hold state policy, including the formulation of laws, hostage.

Those wasting their time sneering at Catholic dogma, who want to debate the superiority of Reason over Faith, and so forth, are wasting their time either preaching to the converted, or egging on the religious to new heights of missionary zeal and fantasies of martyrdom. Public opinion, in this era of apathy and how legalism and naked force trumps all public sentiment, is worthless. As both leaders and the led become increasingly local in their mentality and dismissive of anything that smacks of the romanticism and impracticality of the national, then the political strength of the Catholic hierarchy exponentially increases.

The clergy have never elected a president, a senator, even a congresssmen; this is a truism of our politics. But the other truism is what matters: a politician, whether local or national, is asking for trouble if he incurs the displeasure of the bishop. The hierarchy may not be able to get people elected; but they can seriously harm the prospects of a candidate for election. And the hierarchy has brought two presidents to their knees; and they helped make the difference between being down and out, or living to fight another day, for the present chief executive.

So let me disagree with Blackshama and others in terms of how they’re framing the debate on this bill. There is no reason to frame the issue in terms of what’s going on in the United States; the proper frame is our anticlerical heritage from the Propagandists and Revolutionaries of the 19th Century and the Catholic Countereformation since the 1950s which achieved its aims in 1987. That heritage has been swept aside by demographics and the rot in the educational system and the sapping of the strength of the body politic.

When Stalin sneeringly asked, “how many divisions has the Pope got?” it was a classic case of the pragmatist being unable to recognize the motivational power of faith; he could sneer at Pius XII, yet it was that same Pope who ordered even cloistered nuns to go out and vote and keep Italy from having a Communist government; and it would be one of Pius XII’s successors who was given great credit (exaggeratedly or not) for bringing the Soviet era to a close in Eastern Europe.

In a society that has taken to accepting, at face value, the administration argument that all politics is a “numbers game,” then the Catholic Church has the numbers; the supporters of the bill, on the other hand, may have public opinion on their side but it is an opinion that cannot find a practical expression -or one practical enough to negate the negative influence prelates can have on the countless political contests officialdom’s already gearing up for in 2010. As Blackshama tellingly points out -Galileo may have provided inspiration for generations of scientists and freethinkers, but his daughters became saintly nuns.

The students who will be mobilized to show their numbers should the debate over the bill reach the point of requiring mobilization, may be attending their chemistry classes today, but they and their parents are already being primed with the incontestible battle cry, “what does it profit a man to gain the world, but lose his immortal soul?”

I have been advocating an effort to reeducate people when it comes to their rights and obligations as citizens. Secularism is far from dead, but at no time since the Revolution has it been so feebly understood and unappreciated by the public as now. We are not alone in this, and not just in terms of Catholicism. See an appeal for the secular ideal, in terms of Muslims, for example, on British subjects -not God’s by Ed Husein. If I were a betting man, I’d say the odds are in favor of the bill being defeated, and that the odds are getting better for the Church every day.

At the very least, they can water down the law so it becomes meaningless. But even if they fail to derail the bill, let’s not forget what the Catholic Church has done, and continues to do, ever since it lost the showdown over the Rizal Law: it interpreted it as it pleased, and flouted it more than it obeyed it. And the secular schools have not been able to compensate and have even added to the general uselessness and essentially counterproductive results of the passage of that law.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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