EVEN if the so-called Reproductive Rights Bill has been once more defeated in the Philippine Legislature, thanks to the efforts of Catholic pro-life and pro-family lobbyists, we can be sure that just like in the past several Congresses, its proponents will try again in the next one. At times, even I am starting to doubt the bases for all the resistance that my Catholic friends have to what seems to be more and more acceptable─i.e., reproductive rights. The oft-quoted argument is the so-called “separation of Church and State.” Just what exactly does this expression signify?
Christian Dualism of Church and State: Distinct not Separate
The Liberalist idea of the separation of Church and State can be traced to the proponents of the French Revolution. But the Christian notion of the Dualism of Church and State far antedates the former, starting with the well-known Gospel dictum: "Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s" (Mt.22,I5-22; Mk.12,13-17; Lk.20,20-26). Other less known texts can be found in I Pet.2,13-17 and Rom.13,1-7, where Sts. Peter and Paul ordered the Christians to obey the civil authorities in those matters which were of their competence.
But the most decisive text─for the question we have at hand─can be found in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4,19-20). Peter and John had been arrested by the Sanhedrin─which was both the religious and civil authority of the Jews at that time─for preaching Jesus Christ and winning many converts. To the
command of the Sanhedrin for them to stop their evangelizing activity, the Apostles replied:
"Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, decide for yourselves. For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
In effect, the above-quoted statement of Christ (which risks being a tautology) must be understood in the light of Peter's declaration which gives it content: One must indeed render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God’s; but what is Caesar's and what is Gods? The Natural Law is God’s, and man must obey it, despite any contrary disposition of the State. The State and the Church are distinct, with distinct competencies; but they are not separate because they involve basically the same subjects (the civic man is also a religious man), and are both under the same Natural Law of God.
Applying this to the present controversy regarding certain provisions of the so-called Reproductive Rights Bill, it is not a question of the State desisting from contraceptive means, because the Church says so: that would indeed be an infringement of the Principle of Dualism of Church and State. Rather, the State should not propose contraceptive means because the Natural Law (i.e., the L.aw of God which is in men’s hearts) says so: even the State must render to God what is God’s─unless it institutionally denies His existence and His Law over Nature, as indeed how the liberalist idea of "separation" of Church and State would have it.
The Liberalist deviation: the "separation" of Church and State
Without going into the details of the posterior deviations from the original Christian idea, suffice it to say that intolerance in religious matters did not in fact originate in the Church, but rather in the absolutist monarchs of post-Medieval Europe. This was especially true after the Protestant inspired principle of cuius region eius religio (“he who possesses the kingdom controls its religion”) was installed in the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Wars of Religion, but also putting an end to a united Christendom.
The idea of tolerance in religious matters, at the face of the excesses of regal absolutism, found its theoretical basis in the 18th Century under the influence of the Rationalist School of Natural Law. These doctrinal roots gained strength in t h e thought of the Age of Enlightenment, and found concrete form in the ideological climate of the revolutions towards the end of the 18th century. However, despite their common ideological roots in the Enlightenment, the treatment of the religious factor would not be the same in the Declarations of Rights which would emerge respectively from the American and the French Revolutions.
The framers of the American Constitution were not conditioned by past institutions (recall the opening lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “..... conceived in liberty”), but were rather moved by a strong religious ideal (“In God we Trust”), and desired to construct a modus vivendi for Christian migrants of different confessions that would overcome the religious intolerance of the Old World. Such consideration of religion as a positive element gave rise to a formulation of religious freedom that gave greater juridical protection to religious expression: the idea of respect for Christian pluralism (against the war between Catholic and Protestant princes in Europe) flowed naturally into the wider notion of religious pluralism.
The juridical formula, which was conceived to attain this respect for religious freedom in pluralism, was the separation between the State and the Religious Confessions. Consecrated in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (1791), this was simply an empirical formulation, without any doctrinal discussion. The State simply declared its incompetence in religious matters, by stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
On the other hand, the French Revolutionaries were reacting against the institutions of a Catholic confessional and absolutist State. Hence, the climate of religious tension in which the revolution developed. Against the Catholic confessionalism of the Ancient Regime, the proponents of the French Revolution postulated the laicist character of the State, which could hardly lead to respect for the independence of religious confessions. Thus, the French Declaration of Human Rights did not reflect the full protection of the manifestations of the religious phenomenon. Rather, it explicitly protected only the freedom of opinions, including religious ones, for the expression of which public order constituted a limit to be fixed by law.
The agnostic state
In the European mold of the separation of Church and State, despite the lip service to freedom of opinion, the Liberal State oftentimes gave a negative evaluation of religion. This gave rise to a minimalist conception of religious freedom (leading to periods of veritable persecution of the Catholic Church, first in France and later on in Italy and then in Spain).
Thus, liberalism proposed the ideal of the Laicist State: not in the sense of religious pluralism as enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, but rather postulating the Agnostic State. This implied a rejection of Natural Law the foundation of the public order of the State, thus dissociating the
juridical order from the objective moral order. With its conception of man as a being with total autonomy, and by relegating God to the world of the unknowable (Agnosticism), liberalism proclaimed the human reason as the absolute criterion of truth and the human will as the autonomous font of morality: “What I know is what is true, and what I want is what is right.”
The norm of morality is thus shifted from the objective Natural Law, to the subjective rule of the majority: what the majority says would constitute what is right, regardless of whether or not such majority opinion is objectively right. Thus, in the US and many Western European countries, for example, the majority have legislated that abortion (killing a helpless baby) is right; and in Holland they have legislated that euthanasia (killing a sick person) is right.
In effect, the liberalist doctrine of Separation of Church and State was a declaration of the confessional principle of the Agnostic State: a shift from religious pluralism to the confessionally laicist State: a state where man─embodied in the majority, or in the ruling party─is the absolute norm of right and wrong. Unfortunately, this idea of separation of Church and State is what has prevailed in the last half-century, even in the U.S., and is what is being proposed now in the ongoing debate on reproductive rights in the Philippines.