As Congress prepares to vote on the controversial Reproductive Health bill, all eyes are focused on the bishops of the Catholic Church. They have done everything to thwart the passage of the bill, including intense person-to-person lobbying for every legislator’s vote. There is no surprise there: the Church has taken a strong position against artificial contraception. And Church leaders are within their constitutional right to campaign against the bill which, among other things, intends to allocate public funds to make contraceptives available to those who may want them but can’t afford them.
What is more interesting to watch, in my view, is the extent to which our politicians will assert their independence from the clerics’ clout. The RH bill will be a test of how far the nation’s political system has achieved operational closure from religion. It will give us an indication of the state of our institutional modernity.
If the Catholic Church were like other religious groups that command their flock to vote as one for church-selected candidates during elections, the RH bill might probably not even get to first base. The bishops would not hesitate to collect political debts from politicians they support. But, thank God, the Church as an institution does not and will not do such a thing, and Catholics themselves do not want their bishops and priests to tell them whom to vote for. That is as it should be in a modern society.
The modern Church, in my understanding, recognizes the freedom of conscience of every individual. It sees itself primarily as the educator of consciences. As such, its role is not to tell a person what to do in every instance, but to try to shape her conscience so that she can make her own decisions in a morally informed way. With or without the RH bill, contraceptives are widely available for purchase, and Catholics do find themselves consulting their consciences on whether to use them or not. This freedom of conscience is not diminished when contraceptives are made available for free.
Still, Church leaders believe that even if the government’s intended program is not compulsory and is explicitly against abortion, the bill nevertheless promotes sexual promiscuity and an “antilife” attitude that could easily slide into an acceptance of abortion. These are issues that cannot be settled on neutral ground, for they rest ultimately on adherence to certain moral principles. We cannot fault the Church for insisting on its convictions and for expressing these in the public sphere.
But all citizens have every right to demand that their legislators listen not only to voices from the religious system but, as well, from the other sectors of society. This is enshrined in the Constitution. The political code is different from that of religion: government’s primary function is to determine what the common good is according to established political practice, not what is in conformity with the divine will as interpreted by any religion.
The doctrine of the separation of church and state is not violated when religious leaders attempt to influence public policy. Every institution or sector of society seeks to do that. Rather, it is breached when the political system resolves state matters on the basis of religious arguments and affiliations. This happens, for example, when a president vetoes or shelves a law on the ground that it violates his/her own religious conviction.
The RH bill made no progress under the previous administration mainly because then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would not allow it. Today, as representative of Pampanga’s second district, she said she still would vote against it—not because this is what her constituents tell her but because this is what she believes. This dogmatism endeared her so much to the Catholic hierarchy during her presidency that it became extremely difficult for the bishops to criticize her rule. Our Constitution says we live under a political order where our elected leaders are supposed to represent not their respective religious communities or persuasions, but their broader political constituency. Unfortunately, this is not how it has worked in our society.
In a feudal order, religion and politics meld into one. And so, to the extent we remain partly feudal, politicians like Arroyo will not hesitate to exploit the RH issue in order to strengthen their connections with the bishops. Finding a common cause with the Church in the RH bill, she will do everything to draw the Church to a position that is totally adversarial to her own sworn enemy, the P-Noy administration. As I see it, that is the only way she can hope to stay out of jail and retain what residual power she still enjoys—i.e., by offering herself to the bishops as the loyal commander of the Church’s troops in Congress.
It may be very difficult for the Church to resist this prospect, given a history of close collaboration between the former president and some of the senior bishops. But with all due respect to our Church leaders, for them to renew their association with a discredited politician would be to risk casting the institution in the role of an enemy of reform. The Church has done a good job in articulating its position; it cannot do more. It must now let the political process take its course.
It is worth recalling what Pope Benedict XVI himself has said about the dangers of excessive political entanglement. “The Church is an advocate of justice and of the poor, precisely because she does not identify with politicians or with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere.”