The post-RH Church and ‘the medicine of mercy’


A loyal Catholic, I thought I proved my loyalty by supporting the controversial reproductive health law. In the wake of its contentious, historic passage, I am moved to consider what, from a layman’s perspective, the Church hierarchy in the Philippines might do to recover its position of influence.

(Having thrilled to the sound of the Catholic bishops’ courageous pastoral letter of February 1986 being read aloud in an open field, removing the last shred of doubt about the fraudulence of the Marcos regime, I am mindful that Church influence can be both positive and profoundly necessary.)

I take my bearings, in large part, from what I understand to be the authentic legacy of John XXIII, the “Good Pope John” who convened Vatican II. Three extraordinary statements of his—two speeches and an apostolic constitution—define the position of the Church in the modern age with wonderful humility and great clarity. The first, read on Jan. 25, 1959, introduces the idea of an epochal ecumenical council; the second, the constitution released 51 years ago today, on Christmas Day 1961, convokes Vatican II; the third opens the council’s first session on Oct. 11, 1962. (I am using the translations provided in the website devoted to Bishop BC Butler, an eminent council father, at vatican2voice.org.)

Perhaps these three statements, revisited, can help the Philippine Church find the right way of proceeding, after the passage of the RH bill.

The most striking thing about the statements: They remind us yet again of John XXIII’s pastoral genius. Here, we tell ourselves, is a true shepherd of souls. His 1959 remarks, before some 17 cardinals, are rooted in the gritty reality of an actual Rome being transformed, “a real human beehive from which emerges an uninterrupted buzz of confused voices in search of harmony, a hubbub in which they easily become mixed and lost.”

In calling an ecumenical council (only the 21st in the Church’s 2,000-year history) a mere three months into his papacy, the Pope is visibly moved, thrilled even, by the audacity of the idea. “Venerable brothers and our beloved sons! We announce to you, indeed trembling a little with emotion, but at the same time with humble resolution of intention, the name and the proposal of a twofold celebration: a diocesan synod for the city [of Rome], and an ecumenical council for the Universal Church.”

Even under the more formal limits of his 1961 apostolic constitution, his personality bubbles through. Speaking of the council’s working program, the result of three years of worldwide consultation, he confesses to a kind of giddy preoccupation: “These fruits that we expect so much from the Council, and on which we like so often to dwell, entail a vast program of work which is now being prepared.” (That aside in the middle seems to me to reveal the characteristic John.)

He ends his letter to the faithful with an appeal for prayers. “We address our appeal both to the secular and regular clergy, spread throughout the world, to all categories of faithful. But, in a very special way, we entrust its success to the prayers of children, knowing well how powerful is the voice of innocence with God.” The prayers of children! We can only wonder at the depths of his pastoral experience, and at how infrequently this affecting note of childlike simplicity has been struck in the five decades since.

When John XXIII finally opens the first session of the Second Vatican Council, he cannot help but recall the moment inspiration lit on him. “It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts.”

On an occasion made solemn by historic weight, he manages to speak in the same voice that made him a media favorite from his first day as pope. “In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty. We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” And he was speaking of churchmen who had the privilege or the opportunity to speak to him! I’m sure I’m not the only one who can think of anti-RH prophets of gloom, Catholics “burning with zeal” but without “much sense of discretion or measure.”

The most extraordinary passage in these three statements, however, comes in the 1962 speech, and is read in St. Peter’s Basilica itself.

“The Church has always opposed these errors [the ‘opinions of men’ that vanish ‘like fog before the sun’]. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”

Demonstrate the validity of the Church’s teaching, rather than issue condemnations: To this layman, that seems to be the right next step, for a Church that must learn, humbly, patiently, to walk with its people again.

* * *


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