The Church in the public sphere

People who profess a religious faith but find themselves frequently at odds with the position taken by their religious leaders on matters of public concern may sometimes contemplate giving up their faith altogether. They should find comfort in William James’s notion of religion as “what you do with your own solitude.” There is in this definition a preference for a religion that confines itself to the private sphere, something strictly between yourself and your God.

This concept of religion grew alongside the secularization of societies under modernity, which saw the progressive emancipation of the State from ecclesiastical power.  Observers of modernity anticipated the eventual withdrawal of religion from the public sphere. But, strangely enough, this is far from what happened.

The decade of the 1980s, argues the sociologist Jose Casanova, became the stage for a religious explosion that can only be described as the “de-privatization” of religion.  It was unexpected.  In his book “Public Religions in the Modern World,” he writes: “The religious revival signaled simultaneously the rise of fundamentalism and of its [religion’s] role in the resistance of the oppressed and the rise of the ‘powerless’….The archetypal dream of a liberating Exodus from enslavement had not yet lost its utopian, eschatological force.”  From Latin America to Asia, from Eastern Europe to Africa, popular movements partly fueled by religious faith mounted a formidable challenge against State terror.

Philippine society was swept into this global process, giving rise to a homegrown theology of struggle.  “With the collapse of socialism,” Casanova says, “liberation theology seemed the only ‘International’ that was left.”  Indeed, during this crucial period, the underground leftwing movement in the Philippines received its most powerful boost from the recruitment of highly-motivated cadres from the ranks of priests, pastors, nuns, seminarians, and Church workers.

The defining figure of that historic moment in the life of the Church was, we may recall, not some rotund Padre Damaso but the lean and sun-burnt rebel priest Father Conrado Balweg celebrating Mass in a dimly-lit shack filled with AK-47 rifles.  In the end, it wasn’t the power of arms that carried the day for freedom, but the power of faith.  Those were not armed guerillas bravely facing the tanks of Marcos on EDSA; those were nuns, armed only with rosaries, reciting prayers before the tanks.  How impoverished our view of ourselves would be if we allowed Damaso to define our memory of the Church’s role in the nation’s history!

Not being a religious person myself, I nevertheless found those events in the mid-80s perplexing and disconcerting.  I wondered many times how a new government with revolutionary beginnings would deal with the massive presence of a heroic Church. I nurtured an ambivalent attitude toward the late Cardinal Sin.  I admired his unflinching call to the faithful to lend support to those who stood up to challenge the dictatorship.  But I felt uncomfortable about the immense power he seemed to wield over the decision-makers of our country.  I did not think — and I still do not think — that any religious establishment or figure should command so much influence in the political system of a modern republic.

And so it is wonderful to hear the Vatican say the same thing in a slightly different way.  The other day, as he received Chile’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI took the occasion to once more formulate the proper relationship between Church and State: “[I]ndependent and autonomous each in its own field,” but both called “to develop a loyal and respectful collaboration to serve the personal and social vocation of persons themselves.”  I am not sure what “loyal” means in this context, but “respectful collaboration” is clear.  It makes no room for threats.

Benedict, of course, does not believe in the privatization of religious faith.  “When the Church raises her voice in face of today’s great challenges and problems, such as wars, hunger, the extreme poverty of so many, the defense of human life from its conception until its natural end, or the promotion of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman and the first [entity] responsible for the education of children, it does not act out of individual interests or for principles that can only be perceived by those who profess a specific religious faith. Respecting the rules of democratic coexistence, it does so for the good of the whole society and in the name of values that every person can share with his right reasoning.”

It is difficult to argue against the Church’s assertion of its public role.  We may disagree with its pronouncements on today’s burning issues and problems, but public discourse is not served by excluding its voice.  It has as much right as any public institution to be heard on any issue it considers important.  At the same time, the Church must respect the autonomy and independence of the political system, and the Pope himself has said so many times. But it cannot take upon itself the function of preserving and enforcing this autonomy – without being entangled in a paradox.

The responsibility for maintaining the independence and autonomy of political decision-making rests with political leaders and citizens themselves.  That responsibility is best carried out when the political system is strong enough to rise above any pressure or threat from any religion or foreign power or economic interest in the pursuit of what it believes to be the common good.