The interference of the clergy
The word war is on between President Rodrigo Duterte and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. Reacting to the sharp criticism the Church has repeatedly directed against him, President Duterte’s reprisal was just as sharp—he called Church leaders pretentious and opportunistic hypocrites.
From all indications, it is a word war the Church is bound to lose.
Unlike cardinals and bishops, President Duterte is not a religious figure who must maintain a holy image. Duterte has always been known for his colorful language, something which has enamoured him with Filipinos exasperated with nonsense leaders like many of those who made up the administration of his predecessor, ex-President Benigno Aquino III.
Many Filipinos believe that crooks and scalawags in the government deserve the harsh words Duterte uses against them. Duterte’s supporters add that crooks will only listen to the language of someone they fear, and the president meets that criterion.
Moreover, Duterte has nothing to hide from the public. His private life has always been an open book, and he has been vocal and candid about his views and ideas.
On the other hand, Church leaders are expected to maintain an image of piety and virtue. However, when one disobeys the Constitution and does not practice what he preaches, one will have great difficulty in projecting piety and virtue.
More specifically, the Constitution mandates the separation of church and state. This means the Church should not meddle in the worldly affairs of the government. To borrow the words of Jesus Christ, the Church is expected “to render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to render unto God those that belong to God.”
There are very good reasons why the Church should not meddle in secular matters.
During the Spanish colonial period, the Spanish friars were the political bosses in their designated territories, and the civil and military authorities kowtowed to them in fear. The friars meddled in the affairs of government, thus creating stagnation, favoritism, and political patronage in every aspect of the government.
With their political power came abuse. The friars enriched themselves from the compulsory “donations” of churchgoers, and sired children by many women, all despite their vows of poverty and celibacy. They were foul-mouthed, too.
The separation of Church and State, mandated by the American colonial authorities in the Philippines at the onset of the twentieth century, put an end to clergy interference in secular affairs.
To compensate for the prohibition against religious meddling in the government, the Constitution exempts the Church from all forms of taxation as far as its religious activities are concerned. Thus, the Church is exempted from paying income taxes, real estate taxes, and customs duties for any religious activity.
Being exempted from paying taxes, the Church is expected to refrain from criticizing the government. Why so?
The government finances its operations from money paid by taxpayers. Since taxpayers fund the operations of the government, it logically follows that taxpayers have the inherent right to criticize the way the government operates, or more specifically, how the government spends taxpayer money. In other words, the right of the critic to speak up against the government emanates from the critic’s obligation, one enforceable by law, to pay taxes. Ergo, exemption from taxes means the absence of the right to criticize the government.
Since the Church does not pay taxes, it has no right to criticize the government in the same way that the taxpayer do.
So far, the Church has had the best of both worlds. It criticizes the government even if it does not contribute to the funds the government needs for its operations. Putting it another way, the Church wants to exercise the right enjoyed by a taxpayer, without complying with the taxpayer’s concommitant obligation to pay taxes. As stated in a previous essay under this column, that’s duplicity and rank opportunism on the part of the Church, which is supposed to preach virtues in the first place.
Likewise, Church leaders do not practice what they preach.
When Carlos Celdran, a famous heritage tour guide in old Manila, had had enough of the Church’s interference in the affairs of the government, entered the Manila Cathedral, and displayed a placard bearing the phrase “Padre Damaso” (the sex-starved villain in Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”) for all to see, Church leaders immediately filed a criminal case against him. Celdran was subsequently convicted by the trial court.
Later on, when Pope Francis was set to come to Manila, Luis Cardinal Tagle began publicly preaching about the need for Filipinos to be more forgiving towards their fellow Filipinos. When critics scored Tagle for preaching forgiveness while Church officials actively pursued the criminal case against Celdran, Tagle offered a flimsy excuse—he claimed that the Church had already forgiven Celdran, but the People of the Philippines decided to pursue the criminal case against the outspoken tour guide.
As every lawyer knows, the criminal case against Celdran would not have ripened into a conviction if the Church did not actively pursue it. In other words, Tagle’s explanation was a deception, plain and simple. By resorting to deceit, Tagle revealed how lowly he thought of the intelligence of the average Filipino. This is one reason why many Catholics pray that Tagle will never become Pope.
To repeat, Church leaders have taken a vow of poverty. Despite this vow, many of them travel around the metropolis in luxury vehicles. Clergy in the countryside preach against gambling, but they have no qualms about accepting donations from organized gambling.
Although the Church openly opposes contraceptives, it does not seem willing to provide shelters for the additional children who will roam the streets of Metropolitan Manila in search for alms—children who will be born to poor couples who were denied access to contraceptives, thanks to the Church.
It’s time for the Padre Damasos of today to obey the Constitution by putting an end to their meddling in government affairs.