Sounding Board

Conversing with a bishop

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A couple of days ago, Bishop Gabriel Reyes of the Diocese of Antipolo, writing under the stationery of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, published an ad in the Inquirer and Philippine Star, expressing his disagreement with the views of an unnamed columnist on the merits and demerits of the Reproductive Health bill. The regular readers of my columns in the Inquirer immediately recognized that the bishop was referring to me. I too recognized it immediately as referring to me.

Not that I object to the reference or to being quoted. In fact I welcome the bishop’s ad and take it as an invitation to dialogue. Dialogue among Christians, high and low, is highly encouraged by the Church today. “In the modern world, the scandal is not that Vatican officials would engage scientists who disagree with church teaching, but rather that such engagement is regarded as taboo.”

The bishop takes exception to my statement that “the state should not prevent people from practicing responsible parenthood according to their religious beliefs nor may churchmen compel President Aquino, by whatever means, to prevent people from acting according to their religious beliefs.” The bishop says that he “would be happy if the (non-abortifacient contraceptives) were banned” but that the Church is only against the state promoting contraceptives and providing free contraceptives to people.

From the bishop’s ad, I gather three points for dialogue. First, the bishop says that now “anyone can buy contraceptives from drugstores or even from ‘convenience stores’.”  Second, (but this is implicit) the state should not use public money to make contraceptives freely available. Third, the Church teaching on contraception is based not only on Faith or revelation but also on natural law.

Let’s converse about these.

First, on easy availability of contraceptives in drugstores. The clear implication is that the world is free and anyone can buy these. This is simply not true. Only those who have the money can buy them. Legislators, however, are thinking of the vast majority of poor people who need help to be able to practice responsible parenthood.

It is good to remember that responsible parenthood means the exercise of freedom. The exercise of freedom is only possible if one has the capacity to choose. A person in shackles is not free to move even if he wants to. The government is thinking of the vast majority of poor and uninstructed people who do not know what the choices are or who cannot afford to make their free choice and are sometimes driven to abortion. What the government hopes to do is not to compel them to use contraceptives but to capacitate them to make their free choice and perhaps even save them from abortion.

This brings me to what I call the bishop’s second point. I say that the government can only capacitate the poor to make their choice by using public money. Some would claim that the use of public money or tax money for purposes contrary to some religious beliefs is an illicit use of tax money. The bishop does not say this in his ad, but it is implicit in his desire that the government should not distribute free contraceptives. Can tax money be used for this purpose?

One must distinguish between tax money and donated money. The use of donated money is limited by  intentio  dantis  or the intention of the donor. Tax money, on the other hand, can be used for any legitimate public purpose authorized by Congress. Tax money has no religious face. Whether or not its use is licit can ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.

But—and this is the bishop’s third point—natural law prohibits contraception and natural law binds everyone because “[b]y studying through correct reasoning the nature of the human person, we arrive at this teaching regarding contraception.”

One might flippantly answer by asking whose correct reasoning are we talking about? Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Grisez, Chappell, Finnis, etc.? But the statement deserves more than just a flippant answer. And it is not flippant to say that many serious thinkers have also studied the human person and have not arrived at the conclusion that contraception is evil. Serious thinkers of other religions have not arrived at such conclusion and for that reason the various religions in the Philippines are not of one mind on the subject.

This necessarily brings us to the matter of free exercise of religion and pluralism, which are constitutionally protected. The bishop argues that by opposing the RH bill “the Church is not imposing its religious belief on others. She is trying to stop a bill which is against natural law, a law which all human beings, Catholic or not, should follow.” What he is saying is that pluralism should not include what the natural law, as the Church sees it, prohibits.

I do not intend to dispute the meaning of natural law as taught by the bishop or the Church to which I also belong. But I believe that the bishop’s view is a very narrow understanding of the pluralism which is part of our constitutional system. Pluralism, which flows from freedom of religion, is not just about the plurality of theistic religions. Neither is it merely a matter of which God or god to worship.  Constitutionally protected pluralism includes nontheistic religions such as Buddhism, ethical culture, secular humanism and a variety of ethical philosophies. Of course, it also includes the bishop’s understanding of natural law. But his understanding is just one of the many, including those which do not arrive at the bishop’s conclusion.

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