Will the Prince of Peace come to the Philippines this Christmas? My fear is that He may pass by, but only for a moment, as the nasty fighting over the reproductive health bill—or the aftermath of a divisive vote in the House—embitters the nation. The debate has deteriorated into a test of strength between advocates and opponents of the bill—any bill—on reproductive health. People have chosen sides as though it were an Ateneo-La Salle basketball game. And as things are heading now, voting will not be followed by friendly handshakes between “winners” and “losers,” but by appeals to the law courts, angry denunciations by the bishops, or a determination to come back next year with an even stronger team.
The underlying issues here go back many years, constantly threatening to put church and state on a collision course. I can recall the original Population Commission of then President Ferdinand Marcos, and the bishops’ decision to withdraw as it seemed to be tilting toward contraception. And the strange story of a bitter pastoral letter in the time of President Cory denouncing a program of then Health Secretary Alran Bengson, shortly after what was thought to have been a conciliation meeting and a meeting of minds between bishops and government officials.
Again, I recall the massive demonstration led by Jaime Cardinal Sin in 1994, culminating in the public burning of the agenda for the Cairo Conference on Population and Development; I was publicly denounced in our Jesuit community for not attending that demonstration and—to my deep regret—I offended Cardinal Sin by describing his attack on then Health Secretary Juan Flavier as “in the worst tradition of Philippine politics.” Strong words, as were those of the Cardinal; I am deeply grateful for his immediate and cordial reply to my letter expressing regret that my words had offended him. He was too big a man to hold grudges.
My main concern is the tremendous damage that this long-smoldering conflict, which has once again broken out as a major conflagration, has done and is doing to the state, the Church, and the common good of society. How many billions of pesos worth of legislators’ time have been spent, how many important programs for the benefit of the people have been sidetracked, how many millions of pesos which could have gone to natural family planning have been spent on demonstrations and lobbying and publicity against the RH bill, how many Catholics have been “turned off” by incessant sermons and prayers against it, how much has it contributed to rising anticlericalism and the erosion of Church authority, I hate to contemplate.
I see a no-win situation for the Church if the antagonists view the debate as a zero-sum, winner-take-all game. A “victory” for the “prolife” forces, especially through threats of retaliation at the polls or sheer parliamentary maneuvering to avoid a vote, can well mean the alienation of more Filipinos from the Church and the loss of potential allies in future battles over abortion. Moreover, the issue will not go away; RH bills will keep rising from the dead, as they have done up until now.
On the other hand, a victory for the “prochoice” forces, “over the dead bodies of the bishops,” can further weaken the moral authority of the latter at a time when this is most badly needed in many areas, including defense of a whole range of family values. For from where I sit, after some 25 years of pastoral and social involvement in Payatas, I see the family as very much at risk—and not primarily from contraception. Infidelity, multiple families, separation and second “marriages,” abandonment of families by one or both parents, as well as drugs, alcoholism and sheer poverty are the main destructive forces.
Here I return to some lines by Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, former teacher at Ateneo de Manila and later the main architect of Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” We are talking of law here, and Murray wrote that “all law looks to the common good which is normative for all law. And social peace, assured by equal justice in dealing with possibly conflicting groups, is the highest integrating element of the common good.” Only social peace, and the putting to rest once and for all of the acrimonious debates on RH bills, will permit church and state to concentrate, and cooperate, on dealing with the threats to family values, as well as climate change and disaster relief (Typhoon “Pablo”), social justice to farmers and indigenous peoples (the marchers from Casiguran), the hundreds of thousands of urban poor threatened with displacement and relocation, to mention only some of the more obvious challenges.
And the way ahead? Neither side should hope to obtain all it wants in this debate; concessions must be made in order to pass and approve a bill minimally acceptable to all parties. To date, most of the concessions have been offered by proponents of the bill, and unfortunately few, if any, by those opposed. It seems to me that there are already sufficient constructive amendments on the table, which can be stitched together into such a bill.
And I have a dream: a real-life Christmas card picturing the three Wise Men and the Shepherds (the reader can decide whom each group represents) shaking hands before the belen where lies the newborn Prince of Peace, and burying this issue forever.