“Communicating hope and trust in our time.”

- Pope Francis

Must the Church speak on socio-political issues?

(Photo courtesy of CBCPNews)

By 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, Veritas846.ph 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.

Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle (Photo courtesy of CBCPNews)

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.

The Mission of the Church and Politics.  Probably no one disputes that the mission of the Church is one of salvation.  But what is salvation?  It is regrettable that the term is often taken to mean salvation of the soul, because a correct understanding of the word must take into account the whole person; what is saved is not only the soul but also the body, and all the dimensions of the human person as a being in the world: spiritual and material, eternal and temporal.  That is why, the Second Vatican Council, in Apostolicam Actuositatem, says: “Christ’s redemptive work, while of itself directed toward the salvation of all, involves the renewal of the temporal order.  Hence, the mission of the Church is not only to bring to everyone the message of grace of Christ, but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the Gospel.”  Since politics is part of the temporal order, the Church cannot therefore exempt politics in the work of salvation.

The Moral Dimension of Politics.  All human activity, as it comes from the intellect and will of man, has always a religious and moral dimension.  The reason for this is that any human action may lead either to grace or to sin.  Since politics, the art of governance and public service, is a human activity, it always has religious and moral dimension.  There is always a moral aspect in the administration of public resources, in the governance of people, and in the dispensation of justice.  And inasmuch as the religious and moral dimension of life is the competence of the Church, it cannot therefore overlook politics in the fulfillment of its mission to preach the Gospel.

The CBCP’s Intervention on Social and Political Issues

Papal Social Encyclicals.  It is on account of these various dimensions in relation to politics that the Church has been engaged in the social and political life of the people.  But contrary to what many people may think, there is nothing new in this.  The Church has been long involved in contemporary issues of society.  In its current form, its intervention finds expression in the series of social encyclicals, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 on labor and capital and on the condition of workers, then with Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 on various themes treated in Rerum Novarum, including dignity of labor, rights of workers and the principle of subsidiarity.

John XXIII took up the themes of private property and social justice in his 1961 Mater et Magistra, while Paul VI’s 1961 Populorum Progressio proposed a pluralistic approach to economic problems.  John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens in 1981, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987 and Centissimus Annus in 1991 treat of such social and political topics as work as both humanizing and dehumanizing, authentic human development, critique of capitalism and communism, economic development as enslavement, and option for the poor.  Benedict XVI took up various themes in Populorum Progressio, and spoke of layers of development, including inequality, respect for life and use of technology in Caritas in Veritate in 2009, and Francis describes our world as a common home that we must care for in Laudato Si in 2015.

The CBCP Speaks.   Unknown to some many Catholics, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and its predecessor, Catholic Welfare Organization (CWO) have issued more than two hundred pastoral letters and statements, many of which were meant to guide the faithful in relation to the relevant social and political issues of the day.  In general, one might classify these latter into three: (1) those that pertain to internal concerns that have to be clarified or restated or explained in the light of new realities in the country in relation to the work of CBCP Commissions.  Examples: “Religious Instruction in Public Schools: An Opportunity and a Challenge” in 1987; “To Form Filipino Christians Mature in their Faith” in 1990; “Save the Family and Live” in 1993.  (2) Those that respond to moral and political issues of the day are so numerous, among them being: “CBCP Post Election Statement” in 1986 on the conduction of the February 7 Elections; “Thou Shalt Not Steal” in 1989;  “Guiding Principles of the CBCP on Population Control in 1990; “CBCP Statement on the Debt Problem” in 1990; “On Renewing the Political Order” in 1991; “On the Non-Restoration of the Death Penalty” in 1992; “Pastoral Letter on Human Rights” in 1998; “Shepherding and Prophesying in Hope,” in 2006; and “I will turn their mourning into Joy” in 2016. (3) Those that expound its social and political teaching are best represented in “Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Politics” in 1997; “Catechism on Church and Politics” in 1998; “Pastoral Exhortation on the Philippine Economy” in 1998; “Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Culture: in 1999.

Principles that Apply in Social and Political Life

All these exhortations, statements and letters show that the Philippine Hierarchy is in touch with the life the people and concerned with the common good.   Numerous though they may be, yet they all flow from principles that the Catholic Church have underscored as a result of its reflection on the Word of God in relation to the socio-economic and political realities all through the centuries.  Which is why, though one may not be able to read all these documents, it would not be difficult for him to understand the position of the Church if they are read in relation to the principles on which they are based.  After all, they embody the CBCP application of these principles to the issues that confront the Church and the Filipinos.  Admittedly, the principles are many, but the following have been emphasized in the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II) 1991 in its Acts and Decrees (292-329), in the CBCP Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Politics (43) 1997, in the CBCP Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Economy (37-85) 1998, and, more recently, in CBCP Pastoral Letter on Social Concerns (18-20) 2006:

Human Dignity and Solidarity.  The human person is made in the image of God, and is called to share life with him.  This dignity is the basis and source of all the rights and duties (social, economic, political) of the human person.  All must promote that dignity and denounce whatever oppresses it.  The equal dignity of all brings them into mutual solidarity, that is to say, solidarity is built up on the recognition of the dignity of all.  Extrajudicial killings and death penalty trample on that dignity.  Because of solidarity, one cannot exploit other people or treat them as less than human.

Universal Purpose of Earthly Goods and Limits to Private Property. According to John Paul II in his Solicitudo Rei Socialis, one of the greatest injustices in the world is the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all.  Thus, the use and ownership of the goods of land must be diffused for the benefit of all, not confined to a few families.  That is why there is a limit to private property; this has to be subordinated to the universal destination of goods. Crony capitalism is wrong.

Preferential Option for the Poor.  Being an option of Jesus himself who became poor and had compassion for them, this is an obligatory, essential choice.  As PCP II puts it, “the common good dictates that more attention should be given to the less fortunate members of society.”  It behooves us to be more concerned with those who are at the margins of human, social and political life: the unemployed, poor fisher folk and farmers, street children, slum dwellers, tribal Filipinos, victims of typhoon, drought and earthquake, etc.

Social Justice and Love.  True development is not possible without social justice and love.  It demands, among other things, consideration for the common good, and equitable distribution of wealth among different regions and groups.  It rejects concentration of wealth, plunder of government coffers, graft and corruption, among others.  But since justice is the minimum of love, it has to have its inner fullness in love.  Love creates solidarity and brotherhood and therefore can help overcome hostilities that divide ethnic, religious and political groups.

Peace and Active Non-Violence.  Armed struggle as a method to create transformation of society finds no justification in the teaching of Jesus.  As John Paul said in his visit to the Philippines, “the road to total liberation is not the way of violence, class struggle or hate; it is the way of love, brotherhood and peaceful solidarity.”  The adage of Jacques Mallet du Pan is lapidary: “Revolution devours its children.”

Integrity of Creation. No authentic development is possible without a passionate care for the earth and the environment.  Natural resources are limited and cannot be exploited as though they were inexhaustible, as their destruction can be irreparable and irreversible.  That they bring enormous sum to the government coffers should not made to justify and trivialize ecological disasters that can result from human greed.

Priority of Labor over Capital, Workers’ Right over Profit.  John Paul II enunciates this principle in his encyclical Laborem Exercens: “We must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital.  This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause” (12).  Since capital is an instrument, it must serve the common good.  For this reason, profit cannot be the main motive of any economic enterprise; it is more intended to serve the community of persons, including the dignity and right of workers.

These are but few of the many principles that are fleshed out in the encyclicals of the Popes and in the pastoral letters, statements and exhortations of the CBCP, but sufficient enough to show that when the Church speaks on social and economic issues, it is not its intention to subvert the State.  On the contrary, precisely because both Church and State have the same constituents, its intervention should be seen as a service exercised for the good of all.  With more reason therefore should the State guarantee the rights of the Church, but also protect and promote its mission.  If anything, both of them should rather engage in dialogue, while maintaining and respecting their proper competence.

Unfortunate Development in Philippine Christianity

Cultic Catholicism.  It is to be deplored that, in the history of Philippine Christianity, these social teachings are almost unknown at the level of the lay people. No wonder, Philippine Catholicism is still largely cultic with little bearing on socio-political and economic realities.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the number of those who would attend a lecture by the Cardinal on the defense of human dignity would pale in comparison with those who would make it to the procession of the carroza of the Poon Nazareno.

Decalogue-Confined Morality.  A number of reasons could be adduced, but part of them is that, for centuries, our teaching on morality has been largely confined to the memorization of the Ten Commandments.  Moreover, their social implications are almost never expounded in the pulpit.  While it is true that priests do study the social encyclicals in the seminary at the college level, yet they are not part of the curriculum in the general course of theology.  As they become priests, very few ever recall, still less study, the social principles.  It is not surprising that in the sacrament of reconciliation, social sins are almost never heard of in the confessional.

Absence of Social Principles in Catechism.  But the absence of social principles in the preaching and teaching of the ordinary parish priest is matched by their absence in catechetical booklets published by dioceses.  It seems that in many parts of the country, not much improvement has been done on the content on the Baltimore Catechism or in the Doctrina Cristiana.

Dearth of References to CBCP’s Wisdom and Scholarship in CFC.  In addition, it is even a bit ironic that the Catechism for Fiipino Catholics (CFC) issued by the Bishops of the Philippines, while containing social principles (1160-1195), did not draw much from their wisdom and scholarship that one encounters in their pastoral statements, letters and exhortations. Of the more than 200 of them, only the 1975 Pastoral Letter on the Mahal na Birhen is cited as source from the Philippine Hierarchy.  The CFC would have been more Filipino had it cited many times from the documents of the Philippine Hierarchy.  That way, the social and political teachings of the CBCP would have been widely disseminated.  One has to congratulate the effort of the CBCP Media Office is putting the collection of these documents in the internet.  For it is also important that the bishops’ teaching is accessible in the social media.

For if the bishops do not speak, who would?


It is fitting, before closing this piece, to recall the memorable words of a German at the time of the Nazis.  Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who became so outspoken in his public criticism of Adolf Hitler–easily remembered for his murder of more than 6 million Jews–that he had to spend 7 years in the Nazi concentration camps.  Probably because it had been delivered in several fora, it has several versions, but the meat of the quote is that, for him, the leaders of the Protestant Churches have been complicit in the transmogrification of Hitler in their silence, especially in the persecution, imprisonment and pogrom of millions of people by the Nazi.

Goes the quotable quote: “First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Of course, not to keep one’s mouth shut is dangerous.  It is no joke to be courageous especially if one knows that, in a few moments, he will be six feet below the ground.  In the social media, a critique of the establishment will certainly result in a tsunami of trolls posting responses that are, among others, replete with half-truths, inflammatory, ad hominem, off topic, annoying, and full of hatred.  But in the real world, being liquidated is not a remote possibility.  Jesus himself pointed out: “They will hand you over to persecution and they will kill you.  You will be hated by nations because of my name.  And many will be led into sin, they will betray and hate one another” (Matt 24:9-10).

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