A listening Church?
The other Sunday just before Mass, the congregation in our village chapel was called upon yet again to recite a prayer calling on God to have our legislators defeat the reproductive health (RH) bill pending in Congress.
Mandated by our bishop, the prayer is flashed in large print on the walls of churches, chapels and the cathedral in our diocese. Although a few pro-RH Mass-goers consider the prayer coercive and politically tainted, they dutifully mumble the prayer or simply bow their heads in silent noncompliance. Appeals to our otherwise amiable bishop to withdraw the prayer have proven fruitless.
Equally adamant over the past few years has been the parish’s refusal to hold discussions for information purposes on reproductive health, with speakers representing all sides of the debate. Apparently too threatening is the thought of inviting committed Catholics and experts in the medical, sociological, economic, political and theological fields to discuss RH with parishioners. To such proposals the parish priest and mini-council simply pass the buck: “Talk to the bishop.” The bishop’s response? “That will only confuse the people.”
And yet, would not parishioners become a more educated laity if they were exposed to evidence of the tragic deaths of at least 12 Filipino women per day for lack of access to reproductive health services? Would not their Christian commitment to love their suffering neighbor be deepened if they knew that Philippine successes in reaching the eight Millennium Development Goals have been derailed by our still rising maternal mortality ratio? MMR is now 221 per 100,000 live births, up from the earlier 162 per 100,000 in 2006, despite the Philippines’ commitment to reduce it to 52 per 100,000 by 2015.
Tragically, many of these deaths come from unsafe, clandestine abortions undergone by over half a million Filipino women every year, the vast majority married and Catholic. For lack of access to modern family planning, poor women pregnant soon after their fourth, sixth or ninth child conclude that this is their only option. Whether Church authorities admit it or not, by thwarting a poor woman’s desire to prevent a pregnancy through reliable contraceptive methods, they are in effect aiding and abetting her decision to choose abortion as her family planning method. It is an anguished choice fraught with fear, pain and suffering, and one she knows may well lead to her death or to serious infection. Do not our all-male religious leaders—and the legislators who support them—comprehend the price their intransigence is exacting upon the lives of vulnerable women and their families? Can they really believe it is worse to give women access to contraceptives than to push them into a possible abortion-related death?
Educated Catholic laity raise these and other questions among themselves, since the subjects are taboo for public discussion in Church circles. For instance, despite worldwide debates on married and women priests filling the serious gap in priestly vocations, the Philippine Church stifles any such ideas for its desperately underserved 82 million Catholics. Might not women and married priests bring greater empathy and experienced pastoral counseling to family problems as well? Similarly swept under the rug are Christian principles of inclusiveness affecting gay and divorced couples, or rumors of child abuse and sexual harassment in Church institutions. What has happened to Vatican II’s 1962-65 aggiornamento on Church relations with the modern world? Or the 1991 declaration of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, “The ‘Church of the Poor’ is one where the entire community of disciples … will have such a love of preference for the poor as to orient and tilt the center of gravity of the entire community in favor of the needy” (PCP II, No. 134)? The cruel fact is that since the noble 1991 declaration, thousands of poor and needy Filipino women have died for lack of access to RH services.
While our bishops have rightly been lauded for championing the rights of farmers, small-scale miners and informal settlers, paradoxically something changes when women take center stage. Celibate male Church leaders assume narrowly judgmental positions on women’s lives and deaths, health, sexuality, wellbeing, and right to reproductive health. Surely, the millions of poor suffering Filipino women praying for strength and comfort in adversity deserve better.
Nonetheless, poor women’s innate spirituality perseveres: “God never let me down.” “My experiences made me closer to God, who has always given me more strength and determination to face life’s challenges.” (Oxfam, “Transformations: Women’s Stories of Resilience and Challenges in the Time of Ondoy”)
As “the only Catholic country in Asia” (other than tiny East Timor), the Philippines could be the dynamic force for progressive theological reimagining in Church reform worldwide. It could contribute progressive insights to social reform in this most populated continent—especially if its liberal theologians were allowed to write and speak out more freely. All this remains a forlorn hope, however, given the Church Magisterium’s self-proclaimed monopoly on defining key aspects of the faith.
This proprietary stance becomes all the more ironic in a globalizing century where a flat rather than hierarchical organization is recognized as the desirable norm, and where transparency and democratic processes are rendering closed, top-down structures obsolete. Yet, in our Church, power, obedience, unity, and authoritarian control still rule the day. Increasingly disillusioned laity, devoted to their faith, seek not imperious directives but open, reflective dialogue around revitalized reflection and action—this as they strive to integrate their continuing discernment of Filipino Catholic spirituality into Christ’s teachings.
Our alternate prayer, then—whether said by the more comfortable among us seeking a reinvigorated Church, or the desperate woman contemplating her seventh child—would ask God for two favors: to enable the laity to carry out “its proper and indispensable role in the mission of the Church” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity), and to help our male Church leaders really listen to poor women and see the realities they face, as Jesus would see them. Sana (We hope), dear God. Amen.
Mary Racelis teaches social anthropology at the University of the Philippines.
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