Religion and the rest of society

Perhaps not many people are aware that the Pope is not just the head of the Catholic Church but also the leader of a sovereign state, the Holy See. Its government is known as the Roman Curia. It maintains diplomatic relations with other states, receiving ambassadors from different countries and sending out its own. Thus, when Pope Francis visits the Philippines in January, he will do so both as a religious pastor and as a head of state.

This differentiation of roles is easy to see when the Pope visits a country like Turkey, which is predominantly Islamic, or Sri Lanka, where the majority are Buddhist. In these societies, Catholics are a small minority, and so there is almost no way the religious aspect of the visit might overshadow its official character. These two distinct functions, however, tend to merge into one when the Pope comes to a country like the Philippines, which, because its population is mostly Catholic, likes to refer to itself as a “Catholic nation.” We would be, if we had a state religion.

When Pope Francis goes to Malacañang Palace to see President Aquino, he will do so as a visiting head of state paying his courtesies to an equal. The President will receive him as a state guest in the name of all Filipinos, rather than as the supreme head of the church to which he happens to belong. These are not the roles they will be playing if President Aquino attends the Mass that Pope Francis will be celebrating at the Luneta.

To some people, this role differentiation is not important. But, if we care to look more closely, we would realize it is the basic foundation of respect and tolerance in a complex society. Let’s reflect on this lesson for a moment and use it to shed light on some of the ethical dilemmas that people encounter in the course of dealing with similar situations.

Luis Cardinal Tagle, archbishop of Manila and chair of the 2015 papal visit, has admonished politicians to show their respect for the visiting pontiff by refraining from using the occasion to promote their political visibility. He appealed to politicians to avoid, for

instance, putting up banners and tarpaulins welcoming Pope Francis while also projecting their names and faces. In our politics-obsessed society, it’s not difficult to imagine how papal and “epal” (Filipino slang for self-promotion) can quickly be made to occupy the same space to promote political presence. At the root of this is the failure to differentiate and respect boundaries.

But, if politicians can be admonished to shelve their political agenda at least for the duration of the papal visit, why not address the same concern to business firms? This seems to be the point of lawyer Romulo Macalintal when, the other day, he complained: “The entire stretch of Edsa and other areas are now practically plastered with billboards of some commercial establishments with their companies’ logos under the pretext of welcoming the Pope’s visit.” More to the point, he argued: “With their apparent intention to advertise their products, these companies are no different from politicians who were warned by

Cardinal Tagle not to use the occasion for political purposes. They are obviously using the Pope’s holy and religious visit to the Philippines for commercial purposes.”

It’s a fair comment, one that certainly deserves a better answer than that offered by Fr. Anton Pascual, head of the papal visit subcommittee on media relations and publicity. Sensing he was the target of Macalintal’s comments, Father Pascual explained that the production of the welcoming banners entailed some costs, prompting the Church-run Radio Veritas to seek the assistance of corporate partners. The corporate logos, he said, were allowed on the banners “as our token ‘thank you’ for helping us out.”

Various business groups routinely contribute large amounts of money to the campaign kitty of politicians. But, though they may expect to be repaid later, their corporate logos are not carried in the campaign materials of the politicians they support. So, why can’t corporate contributors to the papal visit take the same attitude, and consider themselves amply rewarded and blessed for merely being asked? Indeed, the Church has no need for those sleek corporate-funded banners

because every neighborhood, if prompted, will find its own simple ways of warmly welcoming the Pope.

In reaching out to the corporate sector for contributions, Father Pascual may have unwittingly invited intervention into the Church’s own space. We are not talking of legislated space here. No one will be able to stop a thick-faced politician from invading hallowed space in the hope of scoring a “selfie” with the Pope. There is no law against it, just as there is no law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of various forms of merchandise commemorating the papal visit. Like politics, commerce can only approach every situation from the standpoint of its own specific code. But it is a code that works only when it is accompanied by a recognition of its limits.

This paradox applies to the mass media as well. To cover the papal visit, TV networks will have to free airtime by preempting many of their entertainment programs, and thus forego advertising revenues from these. That’s how they earn their credentials as mass media. They will try to recover some of the costs of the coverage by airing commercials between segments of the papal visit. But, they will know better, for example, than to interrupt the papal Mass at the Luneta with advertisements.

Such institutional self-restraint draws its reasons from ethics, but it is first felt as a functional necessity of modern society.

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