Women in Church: ‘sense of the faithful’
In a recent article (BusinessWorld, 2/21/12), UP economist, Dr. Ernesto Pernia laments: “The [Catholic] Church today remains top-down, authoritarian, and dismissive of the voice of the laity. This is particularly so in the Philippines where the laity prefer to stay silent and be seen as submissive to Church authority.” He recalls Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 19th century observation that it is a big mistake when decisions on matters of doctrine, even dogmas, are arrived at without regard to the sense or even agreement of the faithful.
For many Filipino Catholics, these words resonate with our own assessments as to how our Church, otherwise so admirable in social justice movements, has strayed far from the path charted by Jesus the Reformer when it comes to social justice for women. Nowhere is this diminution of “the sense of the faithful” more strongly felt than among educated Filipino women and grass-roots urban poor women striving to keep their family sizes to manageable levels. Yet, strong as these women are, most hesitate to speak out publicly in favor of reproductive health (RH) services for fear of censure from Church authorities.
Our new Archbishop Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle recognized this malaise when he referred recently to the “traditional culture of silence” in Asia. Speaking at a Vatican-supported Gregorian University conference in Rome on the global problems of priestly child abuse and of bishops who have hidden those transgressions, he cited the difficulty of having an open discussion of problems within the Church and asserted the need to change this mentality in Asia.
NGO women and men working in urban poor communities can readily recount the struggles of poor women to feed their families of 8-10 hungry children. Yet, should these women seek artificial means of contraception to create a better life for the children they already have, an all-male, celibate hierarchy deems these acts immoral. To many Catholics, the intransigence and unwillingness of Church leaders to understand the lives of hardship that poor women undergo in bearing a child almost every year are baffling and unconscionable.
Indeed, it is the poorest women who most need access to RH services, since they have the largest number of children and cannot meet the cultural minimum of “makakain tatlong beses sa isang araw ” (eating three meals a day). With only one set of clothing and no money for transportation or a lunch snack, their children soon drop out of school. Dengue, measles, skin diseases and respiratory infections, coupled with poorly serviced health centers, take their added toll. The mother’s own depleted health is further compromised by malnutrition, since she eats last and least.
Women in urban slums on average have at least two more children than they originally wanted. Without an effective way of controlling her fertility, a poor woman must make agonizing decisions. Where will she get the food to feed her children today? Which child will stop school this June – her high school daughter or her seven-year-old son entering Grade 1? To which relatives should she give away one toddler? Can she simply leave to God and prayer the care and safety of her older boys already living on the streets?
Faced with another pregnancy, many a mother with already four to five children turns fearfully to abortion as her only recourse. She will likely settle for a hilot rather than the more costly back-street doctor. Or she might buy abortifacient herbs or Cytotec from a sidewalk vendor. If she is destitute, her choices include jumping off a high wall, drinking deworming medicines, or using a hanger to dislodge the fetus. Severe hemorrhaging then sets off a desperate rush to the hospital emergency room.
Regrettably, our Catholic bishops and priests appear to have no satisfactory reply to these questions: Is not the Church, although unintentionally, in effect aiding and abetting abortion by discouraging women or couples from opting for safe, legal and effective artificial methods of family planning? Is not the latter action, which prevents abortions and saves women’s lives, the more moral choice?
Women and couples should be able to decide on the method they prefer, whether “artificial” contraception or the Church-promoted natural family planning.
One parish worker told me that she sympathized greatly with the sufferings of poor parish women, but that she could not promote artificial contraception because that was forbidden. Besides, if the parish priest or council should find out she supported it, her own children would risk losing their parish scholarships and she her job. A few sympathetic nuns working in informal settlements have whispered to me though that they turn a blind eye to women who spend their hard-earned money on contraceptive pills, injectables or ligation.
While Archbishop Tagle’s willingness to dialogue on RH is a welcome development, progressive Catholics remain skeptical. How can they be otherwise when, as Mass-goers who in good conscience support the RH bill, they are told by the lector to recite a prayer asking God to defeat the RH bill and its evils. Protests to parish council members only yield the servile response that “The bishop decides. We merely follow.” Nor does it help when a bishop threatens “people power” to attack a popular pro-RH President.
Church and State in every other country of the world, including Spain, Italy, and Catholic Latin America, have agreed to disagree. The Philippine Church, on the other hand, clinging to its idealized reputation as “the only Catholic country in Asia,” insists on its unquestioned authority at the expense of millions of Filipino women whose maternal death rates remain among the highest in the region. The Church’s centralized, hierarchical structure flies in the face of globalizing society norms on transparency, accountability and participation. Nor have progressive breakthroughs in the physical and social sciences changed its often outdated views on gender and sexuality. Thus, induced abortions continue, estimated at over half a million a year.
With the International Women’s Day upon us today, Filipino women have a message for our bishops: Be on our side! You are admirable champions for social justice in agrarian reform, mining, governance, and more. Direct that same commitment now to women. Listen to us! Understand our lives. Support our right to make crucial decisions about our families, our communities and ourselves. Bless our determination as laity to speak up honestly and courageously as we try to bring our Church into the 21st century. Come with us to poor communities as the servant-leaders Christ sought. Maybe by listening to the stories, the kuwentos, of amazingly resilient women, we can once again experience that redeeming “sense of the faithful.”
Mary Racelis is a social anthropologist engaged in university teaching, research and advocacy with and for the urban poor.
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