Sounding Board

About comments on my columns and blog


I have been getting a fair share of comments on my columns and blog posts about the Reproductive Health bill issue. As one would expect, not everyone is willing to raise me to sainthood. Some would even consign me to the darker regions. It is interesting to note, however, that the comments are almost all anonymous, whatever that means.

At any rate, what I found touching, if that is the right word, is the comment which said: “I admire your objective take on the issue and I agree with you on most points, but please, Father, Catholics read your articles and some are confused.”

In all fairness, I should say something to those who might be getting confused.

I suppose some get confused because they wonder if I am still a priest or even a Catholic loyal to Mother Church. I can assure them I am. Otherwise, my superiors, who know me well, would be going after me with flagellation cords. More importantly, what might also confuse some is when I analyze issues from the point of view of constitutional law.

For me, that is inevitable. Aside from having been preaching as a priest since 1965, I have also been teaching constitutional law since 1966. Necessarily, therefore, both Catholic teaching and constitutional law have become part of me. I hold that one can agree perfectly with the official teaching of the Church and live it even if one cannot enshrine that same teaching as part of constitutional law. It is necessary to maintain the distinction between religion and constitutional law even when adhering to both.

This duality of adherence is possible because religion and constitutional law operate in two different spheres. Religion deals chiefly with the relation between man and God and between man and man, while constitutional law, especially the Bill of Rights, deals with the relation between man and the state.

Let me illustrate this through the teaching on contraception. The teaching of the Church on contraception is found in various documents. But Church teaching is not accepted by a vast number of people. Persons who adhere to Humanae Vitae,  etc. and act in the sphere of the relation of man to God are expected to plan their family according to the principles of the Church teaching. But these same persons should not be faulted if in the sphere of constitutional law they do not oppose a state plan that is not in accordance with Humanae Vitae, etc.  Religious liberty in the constitutional plane does not simply mean freedom to choose what to believe but also freedom to act or not to act according to one’s belief.

This is the same with the teaching on natural law. Confusion can also be avoided by making a distinction between the area of philosophy and that of constitutional law.

Indeed, many philosophers who have dealt with natural law agree about its basic structure. While there may be agreement among them about the primary precepts, they often differ in the secondary conclusions that they draw. But, while the issue of whose secondary conclusion is right or wrong is central to philosophical or religious discourse, it is not the issue in constitutional discourse. In constitutional discourse, the issue is what the state may do with the various philosophical secondary precepts. It is similar to the issue of religion. The state does not judge which religion is right or wrong. Just as the state may not prefer one religion over another or over others, so also the state may not prefer one secondary natural law principle over others. Thus, the state cannot be bound to prefer the secondary natural law conclusion that contraception is against human nature. It simply can give everyone a smorgasbord of non-abortifacient contraceptive choices but leave each one to decide what is good for them or not.

This brings us to the use by the state of public money for the support of family planning services. Support for family planning is definitely a public use and public purpose. How this is to be done is addressed to the wisdom of the state.  Again, if we must enter into the area of constitutional jurisprudence, necessity is not required to justify public expenditure. All that is required is reasonable probability of benefit.

The argument has sometimes been used that the use of tax money to support the goals of the RH bill will violate the religious belief of those against the RH bill. Since paying taxes is obligatory, so the argument goes, opponents of the RH bill will have been forced to pay for something against their conscience. It will be hard to find support for that argument in the constitutional jurisprudence. If we push this argument to its logical conclusion, the state can be paralyzed. How will the state verify which money in the treasury was paid by Catholics, or by Protestants, or by Muslims? And which money can the state use for what purpose?  The fact is that tax money, once it enters into the public treasury, has no religious face. It is simply money at the disposal of the state for public use.

There are also more comments based on the secular sciences. But there are others who are in a better position to deal with them than I am.

Finally, to end on a lighter note, the comments on my pieces can also be amusing. One such is this one: “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” I thought I was trying to lift the burden. But who was it who said that even the devil can quote Scripture?

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Tags: Fr. Joaquin Bernas , Opinions , RH bill , social issues

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