In order to answer the question if priests and religious can endorse political candidates, let me first contextualize the issue and place it in perspective.
a. Separation of Church and State
The issue is not the “separation of Church and State” as usually asserted by State rulers. There is no such prohibition in the Church. Such prohibition is an inviolable Constitutional injunction to the State, not to the Church. First, it states that the State shall not pass laws establishing any religion (Art. III, Sec. 5). Second, the State shall not pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of any religion (Art III, Sec. 5). These are called the “non-establishment clause” and the “free exercise” clause. In short, only the State can violate it, not the Church or any church personnel. When Duterte and his government criticize the Church for violating the separation of Church and State, they were barking at the wrong tree, as it were. On the contrary, it is the role of all citizens—Churches and their members included—to call out the State authorities when they favor one religious group over another or prohibit some religions the free exercise of their beliefs.
b. Denunciation of injustice
The issue is not about bishops and priests denouncing injustice by the State in their writings and in the pulpit. Any Church leader or personnel—bishops, clergy, religious or lay—has the right and duty to participate in the discussions of how our country should be run. It is incumbent upon them as citizens. Moreover, when their religion commands them to denounce injustice, to condemn the violation of human rights, to protect human lives, to defend vulnerable citizens, to take responsibility for society, such duties are covered by the “free exercise” of one’s religion mentioned by the Constitution, thus, should be respected by the State. As Christians, we are enjoined to work for justice and the transformation of the world, these being intrinsic dimensions of preaching the Gospel (Synod of Bishops 1971). Since it is part of our religious duty, we can also do it on the pulpit. Where else? We can do it among the faithful in their communities, on the streets, but on the pulpits in our churches, too! And the Constitution should surely protect this right.
c. Running for Political Position
The issue is not about priests running for public office. That is dealt with in the Code of Canon Law 285, §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.” Canon Law sees that running for public office is “unbecoming” of and “foreign” to the clerical state. It needs to be said that the Constitution does not prohibit a priest from running for public office. This is a canonical prohibition; not a violation of civil law. It has been a persistent issue in the Church and many pronouncements have been done on this. In practice, at least in the Philippines, priests who run for public office need to renounce their ministerial functions or are suspended from exercising them.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.