‘Sue us’ Duterte spokesperson told after criticising pastoral letter

Bishop Pabillo says clergy have a right to free speech. Photo: UCAN
Bishop Pabillo says clergy have a right to free speech. Photo: UCAN

MANILA (CNS): Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of Manila, defended a recent pastoral letter issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines criticising the Philippines’ newly passed anti-terrorism law (Sunday Examiner, July 26).

On July 20, Salvador Panelo, chief presidential legal counsel and presidential spokesperson, claimed the letter “appears to have violated” the Philippine constitution with regard to separation of Church and state. Panelo also accused the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines of pressuring the Supreme Court in “calling for prayers” and appealing to the conscience of the court’s members.

However, Bishop Pabillo pointed out that being bishops or clergymen did not divest them of their civil and political rights to free speech, because they are still citizens of the state.

“Don’t we have the right to speak about the government’s shortcomings because we are members of the Church? We are also citizens,” Bishop Pabillo said in a news conference.

Church and human rights groups oppose the law due to its vague and ambiguous provisions, reported UCAN.

The bishop also said that if the government of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, believed the letter violated the constitution’s article on the separation of Church and state, Panelo should press charges against the bishops.

“If it really is violative, they should file a case against us. We are challenging them if our letter really violates that,” Bishop Pabillo added.

He said the bishops did not intend to influence members of the Supreme Court, but wanted to raise awareness among all Catholics of the present issues the Philippines is facing.

“We did that (pastoral letter) in order to raise awareness among Filipinos. … Our call is clear in the text. It is a call to prayer,” Bishop Pabillo said.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, acting president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, also said on July 20 that the bishops’ conference had never intended to influence members of the Supreme Court or interfere with the operations of government.

“Our only influence is on conscience, because it is our duty to form consciences and we are accountable to God for this. We draw inspiration from both the scriptures and the magisterium of the Church,” Bishop David added.

He said the bishops were exercising their right to freedom of expression, which he hoped was still respected by Philippine government authorities.

The bishops “respect the Supreme Court as the highest body within our judiciary, which is supposed to function independently of the other branches of government if we are to continue to function as a democracy,” Bishop David said.

“What we hope and pray for is that both our legislature and judiciary remain truly independent and continue to function as designed by our constitution,” he said.

In a related development, the National Council of Churches (NCC), the largest organisation of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic Churches in the Philippines also released a statement in support of the CBCPs pastoral letter on July 21.

Protestant bishops waded into the argument, saying, “It is the moral duty and prophetic task of every Christian, especially Church leaders, to announce and denounce ills of society,” Bishop Reuel Norman O. Marigza, general secretary of the NCC in the Philippines, said.

He said Protestant churches welcomed the pastoral letter calling on all faithful to pray for the country.

“This is what the prophets of old and Jesus Christ did during their respective times. It also helps our respective flocks in their reflection and discernment,” Bishop Marigza added.

“To paraphrase what Bishop Broderick Pabillo stated, as citizens and rights holders, members of the clergy also have rights to call to task the government, the duty bearers, if they are remiss in their duties and responsibilities to the people,” the NCC said.

The Protestant Churches also supported the stand against the decision by Philippine lawmakers not to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcasting network.

“It is the government who is not listening to its people as the Anti-Terrorism Act and the closure of ABS-CBN are overwhelmingly being criticised by various sectors of society,” Bishop Marigza said.

Lawmaker, Lito Atienza, also sided with the Catholic bishops, saying, “The CBCP did exercise its religious freedom. The bishops are our spiritual leaders. Hence, they lead their people in both faith and morals, even if it means going into some political issues.”

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