After yet another impertinent incursion into what it considered its rightful territory, the sleeping giant roared to life, and called the latest attempt a declaration of “open war.” No, we do not mean an increasingly belligerent China, the source of much of the tension in the South China Sea. (Besides, it is the Chinese who are poaching on other countries’ territories.) We mean the Catholic bishops of the Philippines, who attacked President Aquino’s needlessly nuanced endorsement of the Reproductive Health bill in his State of the Nation Address in outrageously bellicose terms.
“Aquino declared an open war, a head-on collision against us and against the Catholic Church. So terrible, so blatantly Aquino missed the point,” said Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles.
In fact, we thought supporters of the RH bill made too much of the President’s mention of “responsible parenthood.” They heard it as a call to arms; we saw it as an unnecessary half-measure, which also gave opponents of the bill, such as President Aquino’s post-impeachment allies in the Senate, the signal they thought they wanted to hear. (Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile described the President’s use of the phrase as a mere “statement of his desire.”)
But the bishops’ threshold must have been so low, their hair-trigger so sensitive, they saw in the President’s political fudging nothing less than a declaration of war.
Cocooned in his certainties, Arguelles even forgot that he was speaking in code. “We in the pro-life movements are so disgusted with these vigorous pronouncements in support of responsible parenthood,” he thundered—as though there were something inherently wrong, or unchristian, in the very concept of responsible parenthood. If (to extend his war metaphor) he or other bishops wage a campaign against responsible parenthood per se, the war would be over even before it starts.
We do not doubt that reasonable and responsible persons can disagree on the merits of the RH bill; we may not agree with the Catholic bishops’ view that the bill amounts to a form of population control, but we do not second-guess that view. The national debate over the bill, however, and over reproductive health in general, is a matter of public policy, not Church doctrine. The country’s political institutions must decide on the basis of the overall public interest.
The Catholic bishops can contest how that public interest is defined—but to use war metaphors? To strike a martial pose and draw a line in the sand? (Arguelles: “Time is essential. Our camp must act now.”) To all but declare a public official an enemy of the Church?
The reaction of Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes best explains the bishops’ unseemly saber-rattling posture.
“P-Noy is undermining the moral force of the Catholic Church. We have to move our people to vigilance and teach more our congressmen about the dangers of the RH bill,” Bastes said. In other words, by endorsing, or seeming to endorse, the RH bill, the President was contesting the Catholic Church’s own authority.
This is a mistaken reading, and if the Catholic bishops truly believe it, then they have little faith in the power of the Catholic traditions they have inherited. But unfortunately, it is quite likely a characteristic reading: The bishops think President Aquino is usurping an authority that belongs to them.
Perhaps the most interesting response was that of Malolos Bishop Jose Oliveros; he appealed to the President to listen to the people. “P-Noy has credited the Filipino people as his bosses for the changes made by his administration. Now he is imposing on the Filipino people his own stand on the RH bill. He should listen to the voice of the majority of our people who are Catholics,” Oliveros said.
Oliveros is right to make the appeal, for two reasons. First, it is only proper that the President should consult with the people on a public policy of such vital importance. And second, survey after survey has shown that the majority of Filipinos do not share the Catholic Church’s position on reproductive health. When it comes to the public’s stand on the RH bill, there is no imposition.
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