by: Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, Dean Emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila Law School and a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the present Philippine Constitution.

It is sometimes thought by some that separation of church and state means that church people should not get involved in the hurly burly of public and political life. In other words, they should confine themselves to the sacristy. But to understand the subject properly one must begin with what the Constitution says. 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. We are familiar with the background of this prohibition. Under the Spanish Constitution of 1876, Catholicism was the state religion and Catholics alone enjoyed the right of engaging in public ceremonies of worship.While the Spanish Constitution itself was not extended to the Philippines, Catholicism too was the established church in the Islands under the Spanish rule. As the established church, or the official church, Catholicism was protected by the Spanish Penal Code of 1884, which was in effect in the Philippines. Thus, of the offenses enumerated in the chapter of the Penal Code entitled “Crimes Against Religion and Worship,” six specifically and solely referred to crimes against the Catholic church.

We know that one of the immediate effects of the advent of the American constitutional system in the Philippines was the denial to the Catholic church of the privileged position it occupied under Spanish sovereignty. The Philippine Bill of 1902 “caused the complete separation of church and state, and the abolition of all special privileges and all restrictions theretofor conferred or imposed upon any particular religious sect.” The separation, in fact, came earlier than the Philippine Bill, which merely repeated the provision relative to religion in President McKinley’s Instruction, which, in turn, merely implemented Article X of the Treaty of Paris.

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.”

When people see bishops or priests venturing into public or political life, the instinctive question that is often asked is: Is this a violation of the separation of church and state? The question is understandable because of the frequent use of the phrase “separations of church and state” and people often equate church with bishops or priests. But the negative command of the Constitution is addressed not to bishops or priests but to the state and those who exercise state authority. As to bishops and priests, the pertinent part of the constitutional command is the guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

So insistent, in fact, is the Constitution on this freedom of religion that it goes on to add: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.” The beneficiaries of this freedom include bishops and priests and clerics and ministers of religion of every kind.More than that , they are also protected by the freedom of speech and assembly of the Constitution.

Am I therefore saying that, by all means, let clerics participate in the political arena. That is not what I am saying. All I am saying is that there is nothing constitutionally wrong when priests or bishops get involved in public affairs or politics. But as a cleric myself, I am aware that I am subject to two kinds of laws: state law and church law.

Let me just quote what I consider a rule of thumb for clerics: “The question of the secular and political activity of priests was considered at the Third General Synod of Bishops in 1971. The document stressed the priority of the special mission which pervades the total existence of priests. In the ordinary course of events, full time should be given to the priestly ministry. Assumption of a role of leadership or a style of active militancy for some political faction must be ruled out 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.”(Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ)

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