I found myself wary of hearing Christmas Eve Mass except in Xavier School, where I have heard it since I was six. I shockingly realized this was because I trust the Jesuits not to give a Christmas homily on the Reproductive Health Law. The emotional exhaustion wrought by our bishops’ endless political commentary has alienated me from my own Church.
“[If faced with an anti-RH homily on New Year’s Day,] give me the courage to keep my eyes on the altar, not walk out, and just remember that we are all there for love and for life,” prays social entrepreneur and fashionista extraordinaire Reese Fernandez-Ruiz.
My peers are equally enervated by the harsh, angry, interminable political harangues. Immediately after Christmas, Facebook was flooded by outrage at a bishop’s praise of overpopulation because it will provide more Filipino wives for foreigners, more Filipino caregivers for aging foreigners, and more foreign workers to increase remittances—not to mention that poverty brings people “closer” to God. There was a similar uproar after bishops attributed Typhoon “Pablo” to the RH bill, branded Ateneo professors potential heretics, threatened People Power backed by “believers” in the military, and compared President Aquino to the killer of children in Newtown, Connecticut. Spontaneous jokes circulated that bishops were going to blame Manny Pacquiao’s knockout on the RH bill (except that Mommy Dionisia beat them to that punch).
There is no escape from the seeming suspension of civilized society’s niceties. A friend was upset by an RH homily in the middle of a wedding; another’s cousin’s midterms were allegedly held hostage to secure his anti-RH rally attendance. A UST Varsitarian editorial crassly labeled pro-RH Ateneo and De La Salle professors “lemons” and “cowards.” Even Joaquin Bernas, SJ, was ignominiously referred to as “a columnist” (and not by name) in a bishop’s paid advertisement.
I am no longer able to identify with our bishops, and I am hardly alone.
The Church raised valid points that were debated exhaustively in Congress. First, it teaches that every sex act must have the potential to create life. It argued that the RH bill is so anathema to its teaching that the bill infringes on Catholics’ freedom of religion. Second, corollarily, the law is immoral and transgresses upon natural law (and one is presumably bound by the Church’s interpretations of these amorphous concepts). Finally, it disbelieves linkages between reproductive health, overpopulation and poverty—or disbelieves that overpopulation and poverty are undesirable altogether—and argues that the billions of pesos for the RH Law are better spent elsewhere.
These intellectual points were lost in the atmosphere of vitriol. In the era of Wikipedia and open collaboration, our bishops chose condescension, appearing to impose doctrine from the pulpit instead of addressing opposing views and the existence of non-Catholic Filipinos. In an era where even the President wants to be your Facebook friend, they chose arrogance, appearing to bully, threaten and even hint at the President’s excommunication. In an era of increasingly critical youth, they chose intellectual insult, from vague slogans such as “contraception is corruption” to insistence that a bill that explicitly rejects abortion surely promotes it. They spoke in discordance with the simple message of Jesus’ love that I learned as a six-year-old. The debate ended long before the torrent of negative energy did.
Surely our bishops realize that what is at stake is not contraception—or euthanasia, abortion, halitosis and the rest of the parade of horribles—but what remains of their ability to meaningfully engage an entire generation of Filipinos. In great frustration, many young Catholics have gone from criticizing the Church’s messages to attacking the Church itself. Many have gone from supporting the RH Law to questioning whether the Church is relevant to them. The disconnect has gone well past intellect to an emotional level where one finds himself unconsciously cringing at the thought of listening to a homily on Christmas Eve.
After the Midnight Mass at Xavier, school director Johnny Go, SJ, was spontaneously mobbed by families wanting to take their photos with him. He is stepping down in March and the stream of children was so long that he was unable to leave for an hour. The sincere impact that priests have on our lives should give pause to anyone eager to embrace a Philippines without its Catholic Church. One doubts that most ardent pro-RH advocates want the warmth and uniqueness religion’s place in our society brings to slip away in a parallel of post-Catholic Europe.
I take heart in the words of the “young, yet authoritative and engaging Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle” at the Vatican. “To be an effective evangelizer,” he said, “the Church cannot and must not pretend to have easy answers to the dilemmas facing men and women today. Instead, it must be an attentive and listening Church—only that way will people believe that God listens to them too.”
“Secondly,” he said, “the Church must be a humble Church, modeling [sic] herself more on Jesus and being less preoccupied by her power, prestige and position in society.”
The post-RH healing that Catholics need to effect lies among Catholics themselves. It is time for them to assess whether the Church’s recent messages faithfully represented their understanding of what it means to bear Christ’s name. It is time to reengage a generation of Catholics that has been sorely alienated by recent events.
Until then, at least I know I can run to the Jesuits whenever I need a break from my own Church.
Oscar Franklin Tan teaches constitutional law at the University of the East.