Democracy and religion

THAT funny albeit unfortunate incident of a tour guide making a scene in the Manila Cathedral recently and the flurry of opinions that it provoked have brought to the front and center the question of the relationship between democracy and religion.
How should the so-called best form of government treat the matter of religion? If we have to follow the views of the US president Obama, religion should not be taken seriously in public life. It would just create unnecessary tension in society, he would say.

That kind of view happens to be widespread these days. And it’s very understandable, given its practical and other immediately useful implications. But it does not resolve the issue. It would just prolong the agony, and generate more pent-up sentiments.

The issue, let’s be clear about this, would not just go away simply by ignoring it, or by giving it a merely pragmatic treatment. It would be oppressive to restrict religion as a purely personal and private affair. And inhuman to ban it altogether.

Democracy, if it wants to be true to its vaunted love and defense for freedom and human rights, should not only tolerate but also foster religious freedom in all its aspects.

Leaders of democracy should know, with wisdom and prudence, how to be open to all kinds of religious creeds and views, including those that do not have any or are against religion itself, and contribute in guaranteeing a healthy atmosphere for a peaceful and fruitful discussion among the different groups.

What they cannot do is just to be indifferent to this human need. They would be betraying their office if they neglect this duty, since in fact religious freedom is the most important if also the most difficult aspect of human freedom.

They therefore have to learn the necessary skills to handle this very delicate and demanding task. They cannot be contented with simply taking care of the socio-economic and political aspects of social life.

The religious aspect also has to be attended to, since religion truly has a social dimension and tremendous social implications, which our public officials should know how to handle and manage.

It has to be made clear to everyone that while religion mainly talks about spiritual and supernatural things, it does not mean that it is not based on truths and facts, that it’s just all a matter of opinion. As a matter of fact, the truths religion proclaims are the ultimate truths with social dimensions.

Given the many and often conflicting religious views, it is understood that an abiding public discussion will always take place one way or another. The religious leaders play prominent roles here, but the political and other civil leaders should see to it that the exchanges continue peacefully and fruitfully.

Some kind of ground rules have to be specified. And that’s why it is important that every religious group has to be known in so far as its activities have social consequences. As much as possible, its nature, mission, laws and social scope, etc. should be studied by our public officials.

We then have to realize that our public officials should have a good understanding of this human and social need involving religion. One criterion for choosing or electing them is whether they are skilful enough to handle this task.

We need to outgrow and debunk the mentality, derived from an erroneous notion of the doctrine of the separation of Church and state, which says that the state has nothing to do with religion and the Church or group it involves. That simply does not reflect the reality of things.

As of now, some state recognition of the Church is already held, but it certainly needs more clarification and improvement. That “Damaso” incident in the Manila Cathedral, the question of the Church law on excommunication, etc., are occasions to clarify this delicate relation between democracy and religion.

So I was stunned to hear from some of our prominent opinion-makers that what Celdran did at the Cathedral was just ok, because it was simply an exercise of freedom of expression, and worse, because the Church deserves it. There were a lot of reckless, shooting-from-the-hip commentaries. Amazing!

As to the matter of excommunication, it was clarified that the Church has such penal law to be given under specific conditions. If a bishop brings it up to remind people of its existence, what’s wrong with that?

Let’s hope that this incident occasioned by this notorious RH Bill could give more clarification to the ticklish questions like Church-state relations, faith and reason, etc.

About the Author
Fr. Roy Cimagala Fr. Roy Cimagala a priest of Opus Dei, at present chaplain of Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE), Talamban, Cebu. He is a columnist in 15 community newspapers nationwide. / You can contact at this E-mail:


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