In the News: Clarifying Fr Joaquin Bernas's clarification on Catholic Ayatollahs

Like the civic-minded Filipino, the astute lawyer, and the obedient cleric that he is, the good Fr Joaquin Bernas goes out and throws the books of State and Church Law at us in an effort to “clarify” the “fundamental of Church-and-state relations“. Really now, Fr Bernas, this article of yours comes across as just your most recent bid to excuse (a) the meddling of the Church hierarchy in State and personal issues (such as reproductive health), and (b) the participation of our army of men-in-robes in politics and political exercises among others.

To be fair, the principal argument used by those who criticise the above two initiatives that the Church as an organisation is racheting up, emanates from that misunderstood writ of “separation of Church and state”. And Bernas makes like a lawyer and begins by invoking the following to the letter:

* * *

The Constitution

Bernas highlights the two principles of the Constitution related to the place of religion in Philippine society, the first being that no one or set of religions will enjoy any endorsement or prescription as an established belief system coming from the State…

The constitutional command says: “No law shall be passed respecting an establishment of religion …” Immediately it can be seen that the command is addressed not to the church but to the state. It is the state, after all, which passes laws.

The fundamental meaning of the clause is the prohibition imposed on the state not to establish any religion as the official state religion.

The second one has to do with emphasising that all religions are pretty much on their own on a playing field that the State will ensure is kept level as far as the competition for indoctrination of hearts and minds (perhaps to a lesser degree for the latter) goes…

The constitutional command, however, is more than just the prohibition of a state religion. That is the minimal meaning. Jurisprudence has expanded it to mean that the state may not pass “laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”

That is the “separation part” of the constitutional command. The other part is the “free exercise clause.” Both are embodied in one sentence which says: “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In effect, Atty Bernas highlights loopholes in the Law that renders the separation-of-Church-and-state principle ineffective as an argument for criticising the Ayatollah wannabes that currently infest Philippine politics. Specifically he quotes again from the Constitution how “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights”, which means being a priest does not exclude one from any civil activities.

Catholic Doctrine and Edict

Atty Bernas then goes on to cite his client’s plea that buried deep within its catacombs lies an obscure document that describes a resolution in the Third General Synod of Bishops in 1971 which explicitly emphasises a directive for clerics to focus on their ministry and discourages them from participating in politics or any form of militancy.

Too good to be true? Indeed it is, when one considers the caveat in that doctrine which jumps off the above and goes on to stress that this discouragement of clerics’ participation in politics and militancy is in effect unless

[…] in concrete extraordinary circumstances, this is really demanded by the good of the community, and it has the consent of the bishop after consultation with the priests’ council.

Bernas stops short on further enlightening us with his two cents as to whether or not he’d personally consider (1) the current times as being of “extraordinary” circumstance, and (2) whether it is indeed the “good of the community” that is behind whatever is motivating the Ayatollic posturings of some Filipino clerics.

* * *

In both of the above citations, Atty Bernas does a Pontius Pilate and conveniently excuses himself (considering he is one of them revered thought leaders in our sad society) of any need to take a clear position on Catholic Ayatollahs running around playing Pinoy-style politics. Instead he misses the whole point of the debate and like the good soldier applies his legal mind to what is really nothing more than an act of deference to both the letter of the Law and the edicts of his Roman masters.

This is where I step up and come to fill that intellectual void left by an otherwise intelligent man:

I believe that, at its most fundamental, a religious organisation and its minions is engaged in persuading people to subscribe in “heart” and (arguably) in “mind” to its belief system with the goal of seeing to it that actions that subsequently originate from these poor sods’ respective individual wills reflect said subscription.

In other words if, say, one of the “commandments” of a religion is that one shalt not kill another human being, and we then observe that the adherents of said religion do in fact generally refrain from killing people, then we can conclude that said religion succeeded in its ministry as far as that aspect of the belief system it prescribes. What then could be concluded about priests who go on to seek actual political power (which, I might remind, includes access to options to apply state-sanctioned threats of violence and incarceration against citizens)? Quite simply that they represent symptoms of an overarching failure on the part of their religious organisation to effect change within their adherents.

Bernas, the good attourney, offers his client plausible recourse by citing the caveat of “extraordinary circumstance” to excuse the loose cannons amongst their officers. But, really, what this is really all about is a downplay of the fundamental failure on the part of the Church in their mission to make “good” people out of “sinners”. “Extraordinary circumstance” and “evil” — sounds like the same banana to me. Both are convenient and seductive excuses that the Church routinely invoked to justify a reversion to old-fashioned politics (and often military action and the application of state-sanctioned violence) seen many times over its 2000-year history.


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14 Responses to In the News: Clarifying Fr Joaquin Bernas's clarification on Catholic Ayatollahs

  1. Uncle Pinoy says:

    benign0, if you will kindly allow me to comment:

    I don’t think Bernas was looking for an excuse for the Catholic Church to politically intervene in the “condom” issue. His explanation of the etablishment clause in our constitution is correct in that what the lay person reads as “separation of church and state” does not mean that the Catholic Church (or any religious group) is prohibited from expressing its views about government and its policies. It (the Catholic Church) exercises its freedom of speech when it condemns the use of contraceptives. I do not agree with the Catholic Church on this issue, but we cannot throw the separation-of-church-and-state schtick on them.

  2. ChinoF says:

    When you look at what Benign0 is actually saying, it seems the church is trying to use loopholes to justify their interference in politics. A lot of atheists are angry at this, and are rightly so, since it seems the church is using unfair tactics to manipulate the masses. Sometimes, misinformation is used by the church as well. I have a response to the RH Bill that I’ve been aching to post, and I just might after seeing this article. Anyway, the church is a religion, and it believes it is the only true religion – and like some other religions, it tries to force its principles on others. And that’s the problem. Democracy would actually be odious to them, since it says that people are free to choose their own principles in life. The church doesn’t want that, it wants everyone to follow their principles – and had put people to the sword because of it. No different from an imperialist state.

    And the point on priests actually seeking political power is disturbing. If ever Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four will see reality, the church is the most likely candidate. They probably also want to return to the medieval ages when churches held state rules by the necks. I’m thankful though to be born in the 20th century, away from medieval idiocy… though not completely. 😛

    • Uncle Pinoy says:

      Thank you for your comment, ChinoF.

      In a democracy one can say whatever one wants to say, but, as the principle goes, one’s right to say it ends at the beginning of my nose. The Catholic Church can scream all it wants, but without the enforcement powers of the state (this is where separation of church and state comes in) it cannot impose its beliefs on the people. It cannot force us to take communion, give alms, go to confession, attend mass, or give up our condoms. But it can certainly say that we’re going to hell.

      To that, and to all those who preach and teach beliefs to which I do not prescribe, I say “HA! You can’t make me.” And if priests want to run for congress and try to pass bills making condoms illegal, they do so at their own political peril. Moreover, if the Catholic Church insists on its archaic beliefs, they will lose their flock.

      They can’t make us do it, ChinoF. That, fortunately, is our demo-crazy.

  3. Bertrand says:

    When the Constitution for the new Filipino republic was being framed in the Malolos Congress of 1898, the topic being disputed heavily was provision on state and religion. Felipe Calderon wanted Catholicism be made the state religion while Apolinario Mabini was insistent on the separation of Church and State. As history goes, Calderon lost by a vote and Article 5 of the 1899 Constitution, which states “The State recognizes the freedom and equality of all religions, as well as the separation of Church and State” was adopted.

    The Philippine Constitution, in its current form, states explicitly “Article 2 Section 6 – The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” As to why Fr. Bernas would prefer more ambiguity on this matter reveals the yearnings of his institution’s for a return to a Catholic theocracy.

  4. benign0 says:

    I think the Church generally recognises its slipping relevance. Our enormous population — which the Church contributed strongly to hyperinflating — becomes a bigger and more monstrous liability — even a threat — to our future viability as an independent nation. The prevalence of dysfunction, corruption, and inane behaviour in Pinoy society is an embarassment when taken in the context of our being the only predominantly Catholic nation — one that is failing amonst a community of high achievers. That reality begs the question as to what value being Catholic really contributes to realising our aspirations to be a strong and properous society.

    In a theorcacy, the Church can crack the whip. In a secular state, the Church can merely evangelise. In the earlier you have access to the Army and the Police. The latter you can only effect through love-ins and poetry.

    But then, evangelisation is the only option within the legitimate scope of a religion’s mandate. History, however, will show that most religions have always sought political power and the creation of theocratic states.

  5. homer says:

    Grrr….this is a pet peeve for me. Instead of mouthing-off expletives towards Fr. Bernas and his ilk, I shall turn to George Carlin once again for some memorable quotes:

    “I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”

    “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.”

    “I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.”

  6. benign0 says:

    Here’s an oldie but goodie from GRP circa 2002: Zero Population Growth (ZPG). Its author proposes a ZPG program that takes into account the seriousness and monstrosity of the enormous population of the Philippines that both politicians and Church leaders are constantly whitewashing.


    Over eighty percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholics; therefore, the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings pervade virtually every aspect of the National psyche. The Roman Catholic Church (the “Church”) espouses only natural methods for birth control. Indeed, the Church is clear that the use of any artificial means of birth control is immoral. Predictably, the Church has wielded its substantial influence to weaken political and financial support for family planning programs that use artificial means of birth control. At a more grievous and subliminal realm, particularly in the minds of the less educated sectors of society, the Church has successfully equated the use of artificial means of birth control to the act of abortion.

    Due to the severe trend of overpopulation in the Philippines (caused in part by the teachings of the Church), a ZPG program without the inclusion of artificial birth control methods will not be adequate, much less successful. On the other hand, a comprehensive ZPG program suited for the Philippines, which necessitates the inclusion of artificial birth control methods, will go directly against a particular moral stance of the Church. Further, given the political reality that national leaders and politicians in the Philippines have little chance of success without the support of, much less with resistance from, the Church, who in their right mind would champion an adequate ZPG program and risk being demonized by the Church?

    Surely, no less than a Galileo. The sooner political leadership is resigned to excommunication (virtual or actual) by the Church for espousing a complete ZPG program, the better the chances of (a) success of ZPG Philippines and (b) extricating the Nation from the rut of poverty.

    Having drawn the “battle line” for the satisfaction of the moralists, perhaps the pragmatists, including those in the Philippine Roman Catholic Church, could “agree to disagree” on the inclusion of artificial birth control in a ZPG program. As such, the entire Nation, including the Church, can focus and progress on the broader goals and the many other non-controversial components of ZPG. In the absence of some workable truce with the Church on the issue of artificial birth control, any progress achieved under ZPG Philippines will only be countermanded by the Church.

    It’s a full treatise complete with facts and figures on the issue (albeit dated as it was published in 2002). Check it out here.

  7. Ponse says:

    Buddha once said “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Ah why can’t the Catholic Church, and the other evangelizing religions be as reasonable. I remember when I was in high school, we had a guest priest (Sorry guys, I forgot the name, it has been decades ago) who denounced population control and told the my class that “The Philippines has more then enough land and resources to take care of all its children.” During that time I already noticed the rapidly growing squatters population but being a die hard Catholic I believed the priest. For all my life, I have been duped by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Boy I wish I had met Buddha at bit earlier.

  8. J.B. says:

    I simply find it amusing that when the church tries to wrestle with government policies on reproductive health, the more it shows its lack of knowledge of their own flock.

    Visit any baranggay clinic and you’ll know what I mean. Almost 100% of their flock go to seek their monthly pills provided by the government.

    The only problem with their interference to state reproductive policy is more ignorance of the youngs specially those in slump areas from getting teen or unwanted pregnancy.

    • mel says:

      The Commission on Population (a friend of mine is the Head there) has been silently conducting seminars on family planning and paying for vasectomies and pills for more than 20 years, but still population cannot be controlled to the desired number so that a “louder” call must be done. Why is the Philippine Church mum on this over the years? It looks like that many Church people only want a piece of stardom nowadays.

  9. mel says:

    Terrible! Medieval Catholic Church is only here in the Philippines. In strong Roman Catholic nations like Italy, Portugal, Spain, Poland and part of Southern Germany (Bavaria, where I lived for 17 years), the Church knows the lines where they belong or else people abandon the Church, as easy as that.

    Born in the Philippines I was a Catholic but I changed my religion to Tibetian Buddhism, where purification of mind is the pure truth-state. Our neighboring countries are moving forward and good because the people themselves want to get rid of their difficulties and clear the way from concepts to experience.

    • J.B. says:

      RC hasn’t actually cope well with modernism so penury is one of its best shot of survival.

      Many churches overseas are manned by Filipino priests whose upbringing were far from civilization like Catanduanes and places where tech and TV influence are still very minimal to rouse one’s materialism.

      The fact that Philippines remains poor is actually good for them because it will bring a steady supply of clergy to their churches overseas that were having a hard time finding people who’s willing to make a VOW of CELIBACY.

  10. Father Giiovanni Maria Leonardi says:

    Dear Father,

    Peace and Love!

    I’m a Capuchin monk of the Holy House of Loreto in Marche in the centre of

    Through the site we
    are committed via Internet for the new evangelization.

    To this aim, we ask you for one of your film footage. (any format DVD,
    VHS, minicassette) you have already realized, so as to include in our
    Schedules and our Archives.

    The topic could be the presentation of your institute, your busisness
    vocation, your missions, ….
    The movie will be offered for a year (once a week) and permanently in our
    archive always freely available.
    In support of this activity religion we ask you for your contribution of

    We invite you to know the meantime visitors to our site.


    in SS Hearts of Jesus and Mary

    P. Giovanni Maria Leonardi

    • Ponse says:

      No disrespect intended Mr. Giovanni but posting a commercial and out of topic comment is not really a great way to win converts to the faith. I suggest you take your dogma elsewhere. 

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