In taxi cabs and formal interviews, I’ve been told that the study of secularism in the Philippines is a bit of an oxymoron. Minority groups like evangelical pastors and Muslim civil society organizations have been the most insistent on this point, but even Catholic clerics and constitutional lawyers admit that the Filipino wall of separation is of indeterminate height. “The Church gets away with a lot here,” as one Catholic subject told me.
Of course, some of this public activity is not foreign to states with legal disestablishment. Casanova cautions us against assuming that legal differentiation requires purely privatized religion, and the continuing public role of religious actors within the United States makes the abstract point quite clear. Partnerships in the Philippines between the state and the religious community on issues of criminal justice reform, for instance, bear a resemblance to the kinds of state-religion cooperation facilitated through the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Two concrete issues seem to drive those who see secularism as constantly violated in the Philippines. The first is the style of the Catholic hierarchy’s outspoken opposition to legislation on reproductive health that has been brewing in the Philippines for a number of years. Provisions within the legislation enjoy broad popular support, even among observant Catholics, but prominent bishops have played the key role in blocking legislation to date. This influence is exerted both through the public advocacy of parts of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the less formal but equally influential personal networks that tie elite politicians to Church officials.
The second issue is a range of substantive support given to religious communities in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, that seems to blur the line between church and state. Muslim personal law is distinct, a long-standing arrangement, in part responding to unrest in Mindanao. Catholic chapels dot government buildings, and are crowded for workday services. Provisions in civil code governing state marriage annulments were heavily influenced by Catholic canon law. Optional religious education exists in public schools.
I would argue, however, that both of these patterns are not so much a refutation of secularism as a reflection of its adaptation in the Philippines since independence from the United States. In a prominent Supreme Court case from 2003, Estrada v. Escritor, Chief Justice Davide argued at length that the Filipino understanding of disestablishment reflects “benevolent neutrality” that while existent in the United States, is generally less prominent. It seems to me that this understanding of benevolent neutrality bears more than a little resemblance to the understanding of laïcité that has developed in Senegal. I will provide more thoughts on this kind of comparison, and on Vincent Pecora’s thoughtful reflection on the matter, in a later post.