To mobilize the opposition to the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill on the eve of two more crucial votes in Congress, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a strongly worded pastoral letter on Saturday. Sadly, the statement—written by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, and read in churches on Sunday—was based on a lie.
“Contraception is corruption!” was the pastoral letter’s thundering headline, a deliberate repetition of a controversial statement made last August and attributed to Villegas too. That time, in remarks read on his behalf, the archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan and the much-respected former rector of the Edsa Shrine, argued that “contraception is corruption. The use of government money, taxpayers’ money to give out contraceptive pills is corruption.”
We called him out then, because his “fudging of the facts and of logic” was “deeply dishonest” and “extreme.” Just because the Catholic bishops do not agree with a particular government policy doesn’t mean the policy is necessarily corrupt. As we asked then: “If the purpose is to safeguard the health of poor women at risk of multiple pregnancies, or to give married couples the freedom of choice, or to allow households to create the right conditions for raising human life with dignity, how can giving out contraceptive pills be considered a waste of taxpayers’ money?”
This month’s pastoral letter improves on the August speech by using the following formula: “Contraception corrupts the soul.” This is a subtle, indeed theological argument—but it is not really the kind of corruption the bishops have in mind. The rest of the pastoral letter revolves around the use of government money to make artificial means of contraception available. In fact, the theological formula is immediately followed by practical policy considerations. “The RH bill is being gift-wrapped to look like a gift for maternal health care. It is not so. It will lead to greater crimes against women.”
Let us, for the sake of argument, grant that last point. Even if it were true that an RH law will “lead to greater crimes against women”—and we must stress that in fact we think the opposite will happen, and more pregnancies will be provided for, fewer abortions will take place and more women’s lives will be saved—all this is not necessarily corruption.
Are we merely playing language games? No. It is the bishops, those whose thinking is represented by the unfortunate pastoral letter, who are using language tricks. Consider, for example, the statement’s praise for those lawmakers who voted against the RH bill in the House of Representatives.
“We congratulate the one hundred four (104) congressmen and women who voted NO to the RH Bill. You have voted courageously, despite all pressures, to stand up for what is right and true. The Church will remember you as the heroes of our nation, those who have said no to corruption and who care for the true welfare of the people, especially the poor. May you continue to be steadfast and not waiver in your stand against moral corruption.”
Among the 104 representatives the bishops laud are such anticorruption exemplars as Mikey Arroyo, Rudy Antonino and Mitos Magsaysay, defenders of the corruption-stained Arroyo administration; JV Ejercito, defender of the plunderous Estrada administration; and Imelda Marcos, defender and conjugal coruler of the Marcos dictatorship. Archbishop Villegas, are you telling us now, a quarter century after Edsa, that Imelda is not only against moral corruption, but a very hero of the nation?
In moralizing the politics of the RH bill, the Catholic bishops make the fundamental mistake of viewing legislators in absolute, black-or-white terms. They are able to do so because of the lie that contraception is corruption. It isn’t. The RH bill facing second reading in the Senate and third reading in the House is a landmark piece of legislation, with no more moral implications, and no fewer, than other equally important, equally historic, laws.