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A ceasefire in the culture war?

By John J. Carroll, S.J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 20:30:00 12/08/2009

Filed Under: Congress, Health, Abortion, Churches (organisations)

WILL the reproductive bill be put to a vote before the congressional session ends? There are those who think that, like many of its predecessors, it will die in the womb, ?for lack of time.? I do not know. But to this concerned observer, it appears that it might be better if it is not voted upon in the current session.

Why do I say this? Because I fear that a vote in the present atmosphere, whether the bill is passed or is defeated, whether if passed it is signed or vetoed by President Macapagal-Arroyo, and if signed whether it survives possible challenges in the courts, the whole thing will inflict a severe wound on the body politic.

Tempers are frayed; disinformation abounds; one?s stance is becoming a loyalty test for Catholics; and efforts are under way to make it a crucial election issue for legislators and presidential candidates. There are threats of political retaliation by Church people against legislators who favor the bill. Meanwhile public opinion surveys indicate massive support for the main provisions of the bill, and many find themselves in opposition to a Church which is seen as blocking it by political means without offering its people a real alternative in the form of natural family planning.

Should the bill be defeated or vetoed, the problems which it attempts to address will not go away. They have been with us since the Church withdrew from the Population Commission in 1970, and are visible in thousands of street children, high rates of maternal and infant mortality, clandestine abortion clinics, and a lower class unable to give their children the health care and education which would help them to move out of poverty. Hence one can expect that the same or a similar bill will be presented in the next congressional session.

An article in America Magazine last Aug. 31, entitled ?The Public Duty of Bishops,? by Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco and former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, is worth considering in this context. It addresses a similar but much graver problem than ours: the abortion issue and the relationship of the American Catholic Church with President Barack Obama.

There had been heated debate within the American Church during the presidential election campaign of 2008, as many bishops described abortion as the overriding issue which trumped all others, and effectively directed their people to vote against Obama because of his pro-abortion stance. The debate later reached a boiling point, also among the bishops, with the decision of the University of Notre Dame to award an honorary doctorate to the president.

Quinn wrote that he disagreed with the confrontational stance taken by many Church people, not because he disagreed with them on the abortion issue; abortion and infanticide are, as Vatican Council II says, ?unspeakable crimes.? He disagreed because the confrontational approach seems to ratify the ?culture war? mentality according to which ?the demonization of alternative viewpoints and of opposing leaders is not merely acceptable but required.? Moreover, the overriding emphasis given to abortion can convey the message that the Church is not interested in other issues in which human rights are likewise involved, war and peace or global poverty, for example.

Quinn contrasts this confrontational approach with the cordiality of the Pope and the Holy See toward political figures with whom they disagree. One notes for example that Pope Benedict XVI congratulated Obama on his election and received him in audience without hiding his disagreement on the abortion issue. In concluding his article, Quinn quotes Vatican II on the role of bishops: ?The Church has to be on speaking terms with the human society in which it lives. It is therefore the duty of bishops especially to make an approach to people, seeking and promoting dialog with them. If truth is constantly to be accompanied by charity and understanding by love, in such salutary discussions they should present their positions in clear language, unaggressively and diplomatically.?

To return to the RH Bill, it might be well that it be put on the back burner for the present, and its provisions examined dispassionately by mixed groups of the various stakeholders. Many have pointed out its meritorious elements as well as the questionable features, some of which could be dropped or modified, but until now there has been little real dialogue?only heated debate, among diehards on both sides.

Nor should Church people feel, in my estimation, that they must oppose the bill until it conforms in every way with their principles. If they cannot support it totally, they might do well to leave it to the legislators and not make it an overriding issue. ?A good law is one which is equally objectionable to all parties.? This restraint could open the way for Catholics in the government health services to assure that freedom of conscience and informed consent is respected, that natural family planning is respectfully and competently taught, and that its essential value component is maintained?for it is not just one technique among others but a way of life.

Otherwise, Church people may have to explain why they have focused so strongly on the RH Bill while giving only limited support to agrarian reform, for example. And why they are so far silent on the situation of thousands of families faced with demolition of their shanties along the rivers and canals, without reasonable provisions for resettlement.

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