COMMENT: The Issue: Not Separation

Part I: The Exposé

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/7 July) – By exposing the sins of their immediate past predecessors, the present officials of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes created a national sensation. As usual, the irregularities were first reported to the media. The two houses of Congress have picked up the heat. Since Wednesday, July 6, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has been conducting an investigation in aid of legislation – the regular run of the mill.

Whether by design or just by a mere coincidence, the exposé was in three episodes; first, the seven Catholic bishops receiving Pajero SUVs (sport utility vehicles) from the PCSO through the blessing of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; next, the PCSO financial assistance to Catholic dioceses for their charitable projects and involvement in civic emergencies; and, third, the PCSO giving ambulances and millions to Arroyo’s 29 favorite members of Congress and 65 governors.

Primary Interest

The exposé on the bishops is of primary interest. Entangled in partisan politics and anti-church doctrines and prejudices, the PCSO funds given to the Catholic bishops and dioceses were condemned as a grave scandal and violation of the Constitution rather than viewed as an opportunity to re-examine the doctrine of separation of Church and State.

The exposé raised some fundamental questions. First: The doctrine involved is that of Article II, Sec. 6 of the 1987 Constitution: “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.”

QUESTION: Behind and beyond the expressed separation, does the doctrine not allow some degree of collaboration as the basis of Church and State cooperation? Must this not be so?

Second: Article III, Sec. 5 provides that “No law shall be made … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and that the “free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession … without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed.”

QUESTION: Are the charitable activities and social projects of the Catholic Church for the poor not free exercise of religion? Should they not be allowed as exceptions to the doctrine of separation?

Third: Article VI, Sec. 29(2) provides: “No public money … shall be appropriated … paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any … church … or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preachers, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.”

QUESTION:  If the use of public money benefits directly the poor and done by lay workers, should this not be allowed?

The Church – all churches and religious bodies – and the State function for the same society or body of people – the nation. Except for the spiritual function of the Church and the political function of the State, both are equally concerned with the moral, social and economic aspects of society. Should “separation” be in all five aspects of society or just in the spiritual and the political? Article II, Section 29 of the 1987 Constitution and its corollary provisions must be thoroughly re-examined.

The PCSO Exposé

The PCSO officials provided media with check numbers, dates of issue and amounts paid out; named the bishops and archbishops to whom the checks were issued; and cited the reports of the Commission on Audit finding the donations unconstitutional. Media played up the “scandal” and the bishops were pictured as having double-standard morality.

As reported in the July 1 Philippine Daily Inquirer and the July 2 The Philippine Star, the money given to seven bishops from Mindanao and Northern Luzon were for the purchase of Pajeros – the luxury SUV – so the catchword “Pajero 7”. From the reports, who would not be scandalized?

The Diocese of Butuan (Agusan) under Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos received P1.704 million; the Prelature of Isabela (Basilan) under Bishop Martin Jumoad, P720,000; the Archdiocese of Zamboanga under Archbishop Romulo G. Valles, P1.540 million; the Archdiocese of Cotabato under Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo, P1.440 million; Diocese of Bangued, Abra under Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian, P1.129 million; the Apostolic Vicariate of Bontoc under Bishop Rodolfo F. Beltran, P600,000. Only six received money for SUVs.

The seventh recipient obviously included in “Pajero 7” is Caritas Nueva Segovia (Ilocos Sur) under Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado, P600,000 for “financial assistance” – not for purchase of vehicle.

Fr. Roger Lood of Iligan City Parish also received donation (amount undisclosed) to set up a project for alcoholics.  Father Lood’s request was endorsed by Archbishop Fernando Capalla of the Archdiocese of Davao.

Monsignor Augusto Laban of Sorsogon was mentioned in the Star report as a recipient of a grant. However, the report was unclear – not mentioning the purpose and the amount of the grant.

Liability: It Depends

Did the donations to the bishops violate the Constitution? Contrary to media reports that left no room for doubt on the strength of the COA pronouncement and the condemnation in some opinion columns, two authorities said, “It depends”.

Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., a lawyer and well known constitutionalist, discussed in his column, Sounding Board (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 4), the “Episcopal Pajeros” from the constitutional viewpoint. Citing jurisprudence, he said, “It depends on the purpose and uses of the gift.”

He suggested subjecting the donations to a three-part test emanating from jurisprudence:
“First, does the grant of aid have a primary ‘secular legislative purpose’? Second, will the aid have principal effects which neither advance nor inhibit religion?  Third, will the aid foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion’?”

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, after observing that “The act, fact, crime, the violation has been done,” he counterposed, “But everything would depend on whether they used the vehicles for personal use, or for the purpose for which they were intended for, such as charity.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 4)

Incidentally, Bernas and Enrile are implicitly suggesting the need to know the facts from the bishops and their dioceses on how the vehicles are being used.

(Next: The Bishops Speak)