Are we truly a secular society?

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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The Constitution says we are. But in practice, we are not.

Marites Dañguilan VitugLiving in a predominantly Catholic country with a Constitution that doesn’t impose a state religion should be relatively okay. Our Constitution is very explicit about the separation of church and state. This, it declares, is “inviolable.” 

We are free to practice any other faith and we are not persecuted for our religious beliefs. The state is not allowed to favor any religion and shower it with funds or special attention. All faiths should be treated equally.

But that doesn’t really work in practice. Like many others, I feel the omnipresence of  the Catholic Church in government. It’s a layer that seems to permeate policy-making (remember 14 years of the RH bill), government buildings and offices, the way our public officials conduct themselves, and now, our elections.

Marlon Manuel, who teaches constitutional law, calls this the “insensitivity of the majority.” We assume that just because most of us are Catholics, what we do is the norm. We become inconsiderate and forget about minority religions.  

He warns about the “danger” of this situation because it is “automatic, in the subconscious.” It is not a deliberate move; it simply is in our DNA. 

Make no mistake. Manuel is a thoughtful Catholic. He teaches at the University of Sto. Tomas and the Ateneo, and he wears a crucifix necklace underneath his polo barong. But he calls attention to this prevailing situation wherein the majority disregard other faiths.  

Bishops and candidates

The mid-term election is just one of the manifestations of this Catholic omnipresence in our country.

The first salvo came from the Bacolod diocese which launched its infamous Team Patay-Team Buhay campaign, with oversized poster hanging on the façade of the city cathedral.  The lawyers of the Bacolod diocese defended this as a free-speech issue during the oral arguments in the Supreme Court when all the Comelec wanted was for them to follow the rules on poster size. 

Then came Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles who openly endorsed the senatorial candidates of Kapatiran, a fringe political party but which Arguelles described as one “founded on the principles of Catholic social doctrine.”

The website of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines reported that this is not the first time that the archbishop endorsed the Kapatiran bets: “In the 2010 presidential elections, Arguelles and five other bishops openly endorsed John Carlos “JC” delos Reyes who was then the party’s standard-bearer. Delos Reyes, however, lost to Benigno Aquino III and placed last among the nine presidential candidates. All of the eight Kapatiran senatorial candidates also lost in the general elections.”

Chapels, statues 

Look at our government offices. Many display statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as if it were the most normal thing to do. 

When I wrote about how Catholic the Supreme Court is, from its official prayer recited before the justices’ weekly en banc meetings to its seal which includes two tablets representing the 10 commandments, readers shared their experiences with other government offices. 

JC Punongbayan wrote: “In some government offices there are indeed full-fledged chapels, halls dedicated solely to holding noontime masses (everyday!) and other religious services. Flag ceremonies are also incomplete without decidedly Catholic prayers. Whatever happened to the Constitution’s non-establishment of religion clause?”

He raised an important point: “If public funds are to be dedicated to Catholic ceremonies and services in public institutions, why not dedicate funds too for Islamic, Buddhist, Mormon (etc.) purposes? In effect, government offices are subsidizing the Catholic church using funds from the public.”

“Our department has a chapel…yet [we have] no clinic,” was Igmidio Gilingan’s comment. 

From Ipat Luna: “My biggest problem was when I saw a huge Virgin Mary right before the room where Certificates of Candidacies need to be filed in the Comelec. What does that say to all other faiths about the independence of Comelec?” 

Defying majority

There have been cases that reached the Supreme Court, however, wherein minority faiths questioned dominant practice and won. Manuel cited that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses students who were expelled from school because they refused to salute the flag. In their belief, only God should be worshipped; saluting the flag would mean worshipping a symbol.

The Court ordered the reinstatement of the students who agreed to simply stand at attention during the flag ceremony without putting their right hand on their breast.

The other case has to do with a court employee, Soledad Escritor, who was separated from her husband and later got “married” in a Jehovah’s Witnesses ceremony. This ritual, called a “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness,” is used only in countries where divorce is not allowed.

Someone complained about Escritor’s “immoral act” and since she is an employee of the judiciary, the Supreme Court took on the case. In the end, the Court decided that what she did was not “immoral” saying that this was an issue of religious freedom. Escritor kept her job.

Most trusted

The reality is: we have to live with a very influential organization, the Catholic Church. In 2012, it was the most trusted institution, according to the Eon trust index, with 68% rallying behind it. This increased from 56 percent in 2011.

But we can take comfort in the thought that this trust is qualified. It comes from two factors: the Church must provide spiritual guidance and be a role model of holiness. Only in these facets can they be trusted by the majority, showing a defined area of influence.

In the public sphere, trust is given to the academe, media, and government. The challenge for these institutions is to deepen the public’s awareness of what it really takes to be a secular society. 

Government officials should be sensitive to other faiths. Schools should encourage discussion on the secular spirit and media can sharpen its coverage and enhance the national conversation on the separation of church and state. –





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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.