Abellanosa: Is religion essential?

Abellanosa: Is religion essential?

THE word “essential” has been highlighted since the Philippines and the rest of the world have imposed lockdowns in their political and geographic jurisdictions. In relation to the quarantine, both strict and modified, the term essential describes those activities that are most needed for the country to survive and thrive. Among others, this includes food and medicine.

Can religious services be classified as essential? This question surfaced when Bishop Ambo David reacted to the decision of the government specifically the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) to temporarily prohibit churches from conducting events and activities that would make people congregate. By excluding religious activities from the list of what are called essential, it is also implied that churches are not part of such a classification. Precisely why Manila’s Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, also reacted, and even hit the government for not consulting the religious sector prior to making final decisions related to the GCQ (general community quarantine) in NCR (National Capital Region).

There are many terms in this world that cannot be understood equivocally. Essential is one among many other terms that may mean many things to many people. For the government, religion and its services may not be essential. A common argument in defense of this position is the separation of the Church and State, in which the State is not supposed to promote any form of belief, although neither should it prevent any person from expressing or practicing the belief so long as it is not contrary to law.

On the other hand, it should not be difficult for the government to understand that from the viewpoint of those who believe, religion is essential. Just like the other constitutionally recognized natural rights of man, the freedom to worship is an integral component of existence. This is not about the philosophical question of whether God truly exists, rather, this is about the importance of respecting what each and every person understands and believes about the significance of faith and convictions in life, particularly those that are spiritual and religious in nature.

In the end, the issue of Churches being prohibited from doing their usual traditions and practices would lead us back to two important points. One, the importance of being prudent and balanced on the part of the government when making pronouncements and orders that would affect the core of people’s lives, specifically those that they dearly “believe.” Two, the importance of collaboration instead of insisting on clear-cut jurisdictional lines.

Speaking about prudence, it would have been helpful if the government deals with Churches on their own terms. This would mean acknowledging that though there is an economic element in religion but, at the end of the day, they exist not really because of money. People pray because they need to.

Religious life is part of the most elementary necessities of human beings. Proof for this is the fact that even the government turns to God for guidance during the pandemic. True that Churches cannot be classified as essential like businesses, but neither is it correct to just say that they should “shut down” simply because the country may run without physical religious services.

Then there is the issue of collaboration. If it is true, as Bishop Pabillo, claims that there was no consultation, then this is one area in our country’s governance that must be reviewed. There are jurisdictional lines between Church and State. But often, and this has to be admitted, the separation has always been invoked whenever the government needs to push a matter of which it is somewhat defensive. Weren’t there times when the government opted for collaboration with the religious sector? Is not religion in general and Churches in particular, partners with the State in the promotion of education, charitable works, peace processes, and culture and the arts? If in these areas, collaboration is possible, why not the determination as to how Churches must or can continue offering their services in a time of pandemic, without necessarily breaching safety protocols or endangering the lives of its worshippers who are also citizens of the Republic?


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