The relationship between the Church and the State in Panama in the field of education

In Panama there is a relationship of respect between the State and the Church, also in religious education, and religious freedom is respected. Giancarlos Candanedo has studied this matter, and proposes the signing of an agreement between the two in the educational and cultural fields.

Vytautas Saladis-November 18, 2022-Reading time: 6 minutes

Giancarlos Candanedo has professional experiences of all kinds. After his studies in Law and Political Science, as well as a postgraduate degree in negotiation, both in Panama, and a master's degree in political and corporate communication at the University of Navarrahas worked as a lawyer, as a university professor and also as a television presenter. He has also been a public servant and has spent a few years in politics in his country; he was even part of the team responsible for organizing World Youth Day Panama 2019.

It seems that the last stage of his professional journey begins now: on November 19 Giancarlos, together with 24 other faithful of Opus Dei, will be ordained deacon in Rome, while his ordination to the priesthood is scheduled for May 20, 2023.

In a few months he will defend his doctoral thesis in canon law for the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, on the topic "The human right to integral education and the teaching of religion in Panama", which is the subject of this interview.

How did you come to know about the need to address this issue?

- When in 2017 I was beginning my licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, I had to submit a paper on the application of canons 804 § 2 and 805 in my country, concerning Catholic religious teaching and education and the appointment, approval and removal of teachers of religion. I never thought that in such a premature way a wide horizon would open up for me that would lead me, from that moment on, to work on a doctoral thesis.

From that experience I was able to visualize, with respect to my country, several things. First of all, the fact that there is a cordial Church-State relationship in the field of education.

Secondly, that this relationship is not based on a concordat or agreement. This being so, the question that arose was on what basis?

Thirdly, precisely because of the absence of an agreement in the field of education, there was an interesting field of research and the possibility of contributing a grain of sand on this subject in Panama, an idea that was supported by my guide in this long academic journey, Professor Stefan Mückl, as well as by the Archbishop of Panama, Monsignor José Domingo Ulloa, who encouraged me to delve deeper into the subject.

What are the key points to ensure the right to teach religion in your country? What solution do you propose?

- Respect for international law and the Panamanian Constitution are the key points to ensure the right to the teaching of religion, whatever religion it may be, and that, at the initiative of parents, the teaching of religion is requested in public schools.

In this sense, both religious freedom and the right of parents to choose the type of education for their children have ample support in international norms.

My proposal includes, among others, the signing of a Church-State agreement in the educational and cultural fields, of which I am presenting a draft.

Do you think that other countries face similar challenges? Would the solution for Panama be a valid proposal for other countries? 

- Although I have not delved into the reality of other countries, except in the cases of Spain and Italy, where the topic is quite developed, from the dialogue with colleagues in Central America it seems to me that we have similar situations and challenges regarding the Church-State relationship in the educational field. From this perspective, without having thought so at the beginning of the thesis, it seems that this research with its origin in a Panamanian problem could be useful or have a regional scope.

In order to assess the validity of this proposal in other countries, it will be necessary to delve deeper into the legislation of each one; however, at first hand, everything points to the existence of common elements, at least in the Central American isthmus, and therefore, this research could shed light in other latitudes on how to deal with the legal-canonical reality in the educational field.

How important is the teaching of religion in public schools in Panama? 

- It is a constitutionally mandated subject that must be taught in all public schools in the country. Article 107 of the Panamanian Constitution establishes that the Catholic religion shall be taught in public schools, but also specifies that its learning and attendance to religious services shall not be mandatory when requested by the parents or guardians of the students.  

Would it not be more congruent with the secular character of the State to leave the teaching of religion to extracurricular environments? Would this not also be more effective?

- We must keep in mind that the teaching of religion in schools, whether public or private, is not synonymous with catechesis. The teaching of religion from a historical, cultural and identity point of view, and catechesis, which consists in the transmission of doctrine to those who by faith want to receive it, are two different things. The first does not require being Catholic, or even Christian, while the second does require the faith of the person receiving the catechesis.

Having this distinction clear, it is not incompatible with the secular character of the State to teach religion in schools, even public schools.

You probably had the opportunity to talk about the subject with religion teachers, with representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and with people who work for the State. What reactions did you observe: interest, surprise, perhaps anger at "trying to bring the Church into" public institutions?

- I have certainly been able to converse with many people: civil servants and former civil servants; bishops; religious men and women and lay people responsible for public and private educational initiatives; teachers, etc. I was able to visit joint Church-State educational initiatives such as those of the De La Salle Brothers in the cities of Panama and Colon, even in areas of difficult access, such as the school run by the Order of Augustinian Recollects in Kankintu, in the indigenous Gnöbe Bugle region.

The reactions have always been positive. Everyone, mainly government authorities and members of civil society, recognize the work that the Catholic Church has historically carried out in the field of education in Panama.

They are also aware that this relationship is based on the good will of the parties and that, in spite of this, there are many obstacles -mainly economic and bureaucratic- that they have to face in order to fulfill a social function, which is also a human right that implies the integral education of future generations.

What are the challenges of teaching religion in Panama?

- From the point of view of the State, I believe that the challenge is precisely to guarantee compliance with the Constitution, not only in the area of teaching the Catholic religion, but also with regard to the right to religious freedom and the right of parents to choose the type of education for their children. So far there have been no conflicts in this regard, but this does not mean that they may not occur in the future, as has happened in other countries.

From the point of view of the Catholic Church, I would say that the main challenge is to guarantee that Catholic religion is really taught, both in public and private schools, and that those who teach it are suitable for this task and are accompanied in this mission.

It is also important that parents be oriented in the sense that they know when a school is Catholic or Catholic-inspired, as opposed to one that is not, even if it bears the name of a saint. 

You have experience both in Panamanian politics and in working with Church institutions. What role does the Church play in Panama's public and political life? What is the relationship between the Church and the Panamanian State?

- There is a relationship of mutual respect, in which the position and role that each one, Church and State, must play is recognized. As for the Panamanian Catholic Church, it has always enjoyed great social recognition, because at all times, even in the most difficult years of the military dictatorship (1968-1989), it has maintained a conciliatory position.

Throughout history - also during democracy - it has been the guarantor, at the request of both the rulers in power and civil society, of fruitful dialogues in search of peace and the common good.

God willing, you will soon become a deacon and later a priest. Do you think this work will be useful for your future church service? 

- I do not know where I will end up exercising the priestly ministry, nor if it will have anything to do with this investigation; what I do know is that I will be ordained to serve the Church wherever it is needed, and however it wants and needs me to serve it.

In any case, I believe this research in itself is already a service to my local Church and is available to the Church - Catholic or otherwise - as well as to the academic and legal community everywhere.

The authorVytautas Saladis

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