When religion turns political

As a student of society, I see religion primarily as a form of communication. In simple societies, it may often permeate all of everyday life, making it difficult to say what belongs to religion and what does not.

As societies become more complex, they develop other ways of talking about the world that do not employ the code of religion. Examples of these are science, politics, art, law, the economy.  While it is true that almost all of these had religious starting points, now they are differentiated in varying degrees from religious discourse.

In the modern world, a person can remain deeply religious in her outlook in life, while maintaining a profound respect for what Benedict XVI refers to as a “healthy secularity.” Accordingly, she accepts the reality of a world in which things can have meanings other than those that religion may assign to them. What worries Benedict is not a world that is differentiated into autonomous spheres, but a world that makes no room for religion at all.

Faith, Benedict insisted, must purify reason and offer an antidote to nihilism and moral relativism. But, in like manner, he saw the need for the “divine light of reason” to cure the “pathologies of religion.” No doubt, he had in mind the excesses that result when religious belief is cynically employed as an instrument to attain strictly secular ends.

One of the many reasons he was called a “reactionary” pontiff was the sharp line he drew between what he called the “political task” and the religious task of “forming consciences.” Two years after he became pope, he spoke to the bishops of Latin America, the birthplace of liberation theology. He told them: “The Church is an advocate of justice and of the poor precisely because she does not identify with politicians or with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere. To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: that is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area. And lay Catholics must be aware of their responsibilities in public life. They must be present in the formation of the necessary consensus and in opposition to injustice.”

Nowhere in these pronouncements is Benedict saying that the Church must not speak on matters that are taken up by society as political or scientific or legal issues. But he is quite explicit in saying that it must stay within its distinct operational sphere. The Church must avoid “transforming herself into a directly political subject… identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions.”

The point he makes here hinges very much on an understanding of the nature of religious communication as distinguished from, let us say, political communication. I would argue, with Benedict, that religious communication revolves around the teaching of “the great criteria and inalienable values” based on faith, and “offer[ing] a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere.” It should concern itself with teaching “the great criteria,” not with listing down the names of political parties or of candidates for public office. To resort to the latter is to risk making religious communication indistinguishable from political propaganda.

For the Church to put up gigantic tarpaulins on the walls of a cathedral, enumerating the names of senatorial candidates who must be elected or rejected, as the case may be, solely on the basis of how they voted on a piece of legislation deemed important by the Church, is to take on a directly (and, I would also say, narrowly) political role.

The Commission on Elections precisely regards these tarpaulins as political in nature, which is why it has called the attention of the Diocese of Bacolod merely in regard to their size. The diocese has been ordered to reduce the size of the tarpaulins to make them conform to the rules on campaign posters. But, instead of abiding, Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra has asked the Supreme Court to restrain the Comelec on the ground that the order violates the Church’s exercise of its freedom of expression.

If I were the good bishop, I would worry less about whether these tarpaulins are legal or not, and more about how the Bacolod faithful themselves view this overt expression of political preferences. Do they accept it as a valid performance of the Church’s function? Or are they disturbed that the clergy is taking on an unmistakably political role? The check must come from within the Church itself. Benedict worried that if the Church transformed herself into a political subject, “she would lose her independence and her moral authority” as a teacher of values and virtues.

When the Church speaks about the need to promote a culture of life, or to reject what it sees as a culture of death, in reference to any public issue, it may be argued that this is an integral part of its teaching function. But, when it takes the further step of naming candidates to be chosen or to be rejected, then it is substituting its conscience for that of the faithful. Campaigning for or against particular candidates is all right if this is done by the laity outside Church grounds in the exercise of their political rights, but not when it is done by the clergy in the performance of their religious function.

Benedict’s concern was always, above all, to make the Church’s distinct voice heard in a world riven by the clamor of many voices. Those political tarpaulins on the cathedral wall do a great disservice to the Church’s voice.

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