A proposed bill, the “Freedom of Religion in Government Offices Act,” has caused heated debates among church leaders, politicians, and ordinary citizens in the Philippines. The bill is praised by some as a timely application of the separation of Church and State. Others have condemned the bill as an attack on religious freedom. If passed into law, the bill would prohibit the display of religious symbols and the celebration of religious rites within the premises of government offices, departments, and bureaus. The reaction from the Catholic hierarchy against the bill is fierce. The concerted efforts of church leaders, politicians, and ordinary citizens opposed to the bill would most likely prevent it from being made into a law. However, the ongoing debate is a good opportunity for Filipinos to explore the issue of Catholic dominance and privilege in the public sphere.
An aspect of the issue is the way other Christian denominations as well as other faiths have been marginalized by over-zealous Catholics in government. Catholic symbols such as giant rosaries or images of Mary are prominently displayed in government buildings. Although there have been efforts to use ecumenical prayers and rituals for government events, Catholic rites remain the default religious ceremony on many occasions. There is either indifference or ignorance among Filipino Catholics how these government-sponsored practices can be offensive and discriminatory to non-Catholics.
The issue of Catholic dominance goes beyond the display of symbols. A presumption of Catholic privilege seeps into the rhetoric used by some Catholic s, both lay and clergy, in public debates with the government. Many of their statements lack sensitivity to the pluralistic nature of Filipino society. In debates about proposed laws on contraception or divorce, the Catholic way is asserted as the only way or “the Filipino way” and church law is presumed to be higher than civil law. Positions from other faith traditions are recognized only if these opinions support the Catholic position.
It would be good for Filipinos, especially religious leaders and those who decide public policy, to listen to what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has to say on the matter:
Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups;” (#169): “Those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority (#422).
Humility, sensitivity, cooperation, and openness to dialogue are virtues that Catholics need to practice frequently and consistently when interacting with people of different faiths in the public sphere. The practice of these virtues will help the Church take its proper place in a pluralistic society without losing its prophetic voice.