Are Catholics who disagree with the Philippine bishops’ condemnation of the reproductive health bill bad Catholics? The bishops’ statements would have the public believe so. Yet Vatican II documents will affirm that in advocating passage of the RH bill, the laity are indeed playing their proper roles in Church reform.
Fifty years ago John XXIII called for an aggiornamiento, a renewal of the Catholic Church aimed at “bringing the perennial, life-giving energies of the Gospel to the modern world.” Bishops were urged to consult their parishioners, priests, nuns, and various experts, as well as listen intensively to theologians so that the Church could “respond creatively to modern society.”
Of the many documents generated by the Vatican Council in 1962-65, the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” brought great hope to many lay Catholics. It asserted that modern conditions demanded that the lay apostolate be broadened and intensified. The laity’s “expert attention and study” were now crucial in the reform process.
“With a constantly increasing population, continual progress in science and technology, and closer interpersonal relationships, the areas for the lay apostolate have been immensely widened particularly in fields that have been for the most part open to the laity alone.”
In 1988 John Paul II pointed out in “Christifideles Laici” that “a new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful” as sharers in the priestly mission. The document also decried “forms of discrimination and marginalization to which women are subjected simply because they are women, … [and] the urgency to defend and to promote the personal dignity of woman, and consequently, her equality with man.”
Last August Benedict XVI highlighted the need for “a change in mentality, particularly with regard to the laity in the church, who should be considered not as ‘collaborators’ with the clergy but as persons truly ‘co-responsible’ for the being and activity of the Church.”
What are Filipino lay Catholics in 2012 to make of all this? In the intervening 50 years, Vatican II spurred many into social action reinforced by the theology of liberation and later, meaningful partnerships with the bishops in attacking poverty and injustice. Drawing on their Christian consciences, they contested the Marcos dictatorship with its human rights violations, confronted as unworthy of governance the corruption and profligacy of the Estrada and Arroyo administrations, and championed agrarian reform along with the rights of urban informal settlers, indigenous people and Muslim minorities. The commitment to becoming “men and women for others” and thus sharing in Jesus Christ’s redemptive mission formed an integral part of their identity as Catholic Filipinos in the modern world.
How devastating then has it been for many active Catholics to witness the reactions of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to the issue of reproductive health. Moving forcefully into areas of lay expertise, like economics, demography, behavioral sciences, medicine, sexuality, gender, law, governance and politics, the CBCP’s pronouncements on these subjects have progressively undermined its credibility as moral arbiter in the domain of reproductive health. Not since the Philippine Revolution of 1896 has the Filipino laity challenged the bishops’ authority so openly and overwhelmingly.
The critical reactions of lay experts including grassroots women’s groups may be summarized in these statements. The CBCP is: out of step with the times, clinging to outmoded understandings of sex, marriage and family life; violating the rights of Filipino women and their partners to choose their preferred ways of planning their families; creating a situation where many poor women find themselves pregnant yet again, feeling they have no option other than abortion to terminate the unwanted pregnancy; refusing to recognize the heavy burdens that a large family places on poor women economically, physically and mentally; and contributing to the rise in teenage pregnancies by preventing adolescents from obtaining age-appropriate sex education in school.
Informed laity also believe the CBCP is: misguided in rejecting the current scientific consensus on the strategic role of contraception in reducing maternal, neonatal and HIV/AIDS deaths; ignoring the reality that poor women cannot afford to buy contraceptives; refusing to acknowledge the great strain that the burgeoning population poses on resources, thereby exacerbating poverty and environmental sustainability; violating the separation of church and state by attacking the RH bill in sermons and threatening pro-RH lawmakers with a Catholic backlash in the 2013 elections, and even excommunication; and displaying an unwillingness to listen and reacting defensively to challenges to its authority.
But the arena of discussion at this point is in Congress. The pros and cons have been debated to exhaustion for the past 13 years. Filipinos have made their preferences known in surveys and in open dissent. It is time to vote. (The House passed the bill on second reading early Thursday. The Senate is set to vote on a version of the bill.—ED.)
Speaking in our areas of expertise and conviction, as urged by Vatican II, we affirm in clear conscience that as discerning lay Catholics, we must support the RH bill. In making that assertion, we are defending women’s lives, backing the rights of couples to plan their families, ensuring the future of our young people, attacking poverty and injustice, preserving national resources, and upholding the separation of church and state. This is our commitment as laity co-responsible with the clergy as People of God. Our lawmakers can stand confidently with us and the vast majority of the Filipino people by voting “yes.”
Mary Racelis is a social anthropologist.