Alas, the messiah has spoken! Last Tuesday Pampanga Gov. Eddie “Among Ed” Panlilio has declared his intention to join the 2010 presidential race after hearing God’s voice. To begin with, as fellow believer in Christ I will not question the validity of his claim nor question the authenticity of the “voice” as one coming from heaven. But let me separate my ecclesiastical thoughts for the moment and offer a few secular observations concerning Among Ed’s controversial statement. Reading between the lines, what I’m trying to say is this; a mixture of politics and religion is a dangerous precedent in any body politic. At least that is what my history book says. In the realm of politics even the most despicable aspirant for power can recite scriptures or can freely claim that he is the duly anointed one much less a statement coming from a saintly character like Among Ed. Even the “little girl” from Malacanang claimed, to a certain extent, that her presidency is but a product of divine intervention. Yes, like Among Ed she also received divine instructions and no one dared to challenge her to prove the veracity of his statement. Nonetheless, I will dispense my political analysis on this issue. My utmost concern has something to do with the legal separation of two major institutions in our society, the Church and State, as commanded by no less than the Constitution.
While I highly welcome Among Ed’s decision to run for the presidency for the May 2010election, there is however one thing I would like to clarify with his upcoming presidential bid. For all intents and purposes, Among Ed has not technically abandoned priesthood even while serving as governor of Pampanga. In fact, he can regain his stint as a priest had he lost the local election. I’m not quite sure this time what will be the position of Among Ed owing to the fact that he will be eyeing for the highest position of the land. In an interview, Among Ed said that he would formally request for dispensation from the Church upon filing his certificate of candidacy. Nonetheless, he was quick to reiterate that he would want to go back to priesthood should he lose in his presidential bid. Seen on its face, the statement of Among Ed can be confusing if not deceiving. Priest-on-leave or not, he is still a priest. The Church on the other hand seems to play the political cards too close to its chest. In refusing to endorse the candidacy of Among Ed it does not however give a clear and decisive statement on his membership on the clergy. I may be wrong in all this, but if Among Ed wins the presidency, it will also mean one thing-a silent victory for the Catholic Church. I urge the Church to do something about this to erase any doubts concerning Among Ed’s candidacy.
Under Canon Law, priests are not generally allowed to participate in partisan politics or hold public offices involving the exercise of civil powers. But from the looks of it, this prohibition is more of an exception rather than the rule. To be clear, the soundness of this rule is not entirely our concern, let the politically potent CBCP or the feisty Archbishop Oscar Cruz handle this problem. My pressing question however is this: If there is indeed a Canon law violation when clerics hold public offices, does it necessarily follow that there is a constitutional breach? In other words, will there be a violation of the separation of Church and State principle if Among Ed will eventually become the next president of the Republic? I will try to answer this question to the best of my knowledge on the rudiments of constitutional law.
The Constitution by way of a general principle says that, “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” Furthermore Article III, Section 5 enunciates that, “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (Also known as the "non-establishment clause.") The idea behind this principle is best explained by Justice Isagani A. Cruz in this wise, “The rationale of the rule is summed up in the familiar saying, “Strong fences make good neighbors.” The idea is to delineate the boundaries between the two institutions and thus avoid encroachments by one against the other because of a misunderstanding of the limits of their respective jurisdictions. The demarcation line calls on the entities to render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” The rationale behind this principle is too obvious, a merger between the church and state tends to destroy government and degrade religion. This does not mean however that both institutions must treat each other with hostility. In fact, the Constitution itself recognizes the beneficial aspects of religion to promote the well-being of its citizens and the nation as a whole. Unlike our preceding constitutions, the Preamble of the 1987 Constitution uses the phrase, “imploring the aid of the almighty God,” to be more consistent with Filipino religiosity. Tax exemptions are also given on properties used directly and exclusively for religious purposes. The Church on the other hand, openly participates on various political and civil issues affecting the government. The Church, especially in our country, has always been on the frontline of our political history and has somehow directed the course of the ship of state.
But then again the Constitution marks the thin line between these two key institutions. If you will examine the wordings of the constitutional provisions, the thrust of the principle is strictly geared towards the State and not the Church. Conversely, the provision on the separation of Church and State is a limitation directed upon the State and it’s institutions-primarily the government. The provision on the Bill of Rights for instance, cautions the State not to pass laws which will otherwise favor one religion over the other. Certainly, who has the power to pass laws, the Church or the State? Obviously, it is the State as represented by its legislative organs mainly, Congress and to a certain extent, the local legislative bodies. On historical angle, under the Spanish regime, the Church was clearly empowered to perform acts or issue directives which have the force of law. Now, the civil powers have been reverted back to the state. At any rate, the rule under constitutional law is clear; the state must always remain neutral in its dealings with various religions. Moreover, the inclusion of the “non-establishment clause” in the Bill of Rights elevates the principle of separation of Church and State in the same category with other constitutional precepts such as the due process clause, the rights of the accused, freedom of expression and many more. What then is this the clear import of this analysis? Apparently, in one sense these constitutional rights protect individuals against the vast and intrusive powers of the State. In another sense, the constitution strictly limits the awesome powers of the state in relation with individuals. Thus, while the State can legislate anything and everything under the sun, it cannot however pass laws which run contrary to the limitations set forth in the Bill of Rights like the “non-establishment clause.”
In view of this staid disquisition, the desire of the venerable Among Ed to run for the presidency while ethically challenged (as explained above), the same may be constitutionally defensible. It has always been my burden to offer a sensible explanation whenever friends raise the billion dollar constitutional question on church and politics. Can the church endorse the candidacy of Among Ed or perhaps Bro. Eddie Villanueva? To this, my usual answer would be a resounding yes. Certainly, the Church just like any secular organization can freely participate in the “marketplace of ideas” especially on matters of public concern like presidential election. The wall of separation does not preclude the church to exercise constitutional guarantee of free speech and expression and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. The more difficult question though is when a churchman decides to run for public office. Worse, what if he wins the election and thereby assumes the public position? In the 2004 presidential election, Bro. Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus Is Lord church joined the presidential race but miserably failed. In my hometown Zamboanga, an amiable priest tried his luck for the mayoralty post against a more experienced and prominent candidate in the parochial political arena. Like Among Ed, he too heard the voice from heaven. Unfortunately, the churchman failed to muster enough votes and lost his mayoralty bid fair and square. The candidacy of Among Ed as governor of Pampanga in the 2007 local election relatively changed the face of Philippine politics. Consequently, he became the first ever Filipino priest to sit in public office. And because of this major turning point, no one dared to lift a finger questioning the legality of Among Ed’s assumption as governor of Pampanga. But still, the billion dollar question remains unsettled. Nonetheless, the participation of "churchmen-politicians" in the political arena indicates the need for alternative “apolitical” candidates other than the traditional players during elections. And in doing so, the supposed high wall which separates the church and the state remain intact, at least in the constitutional sense.
As mentioned earlier, my concern is not focused on Among Ed’s preoccupation to aspire and perhaps even to lead the nation as the highest official of the land. But here’s a thought, what is constitutional is not necessarily moral. Personally, I have nothing against Among Ed if he really wishes to introduce genuine political reforms in our country, we should all be grateful about that. But that is not the issue here. With this piece, I challenge the Catholic Church to strip naked Among Ed’s sotana the moment he files his certificate of candidacy for the presidency. The Catholic Church certainly has the sole authority, whether on the basis of Canon law or any religious dogma to rule on Among Ed’s case. Frankly, I know nothing about church discipline or church tribunal procedures applicable to churchman like Among Ed. I trust that the Church will exercise prudential judgment on this matter. As for Among Ed, will it be priesthood or politics? Either way, it’s all or nothing. Take your pick father!
The 1987 Constitution: A Commentary by Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas
Constitutional Law by Justice Isagani A. Cruz
The 1987 Constitution