The church of Joaquin Bernas
On Aug. 31, 2012, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines published an advertisement in this newspaper arguing the CBCP’s stance against the Reproductive Health bill. Signed by the Most Reverend Gabriel V. Reyes, DD, Bishop of Antipolo, the “Defense of the Stand of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on the House Bill 4244,” referred to an unnamed “columnist in one of our newspapers” who wrote that “the state should not prevent people from practicing responsible parenthood according to their beliefs nor may churchmen compel President Aquino, by whatever means, to prevent people from acting according to their religious belief.”
The same letter from the Most Reverend Reyes appears on the CBCP website with images of the original letter. The letter is also displayed on the website of the diocese of Antipolo. In both, Reyes names Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, and his column “Sounding Board” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer published on May 23, 2011. It is an odd decision to excise the name of the man the Church is criticizing from a paid ad—and the Inquirer says it has published the ad as given—as if it is impossible to discover who they are referring to granting the extended quotations published in the rebuttal. Perhaps it was oversight that allowed Bernas’ name to be published online even if the CBCP chose not to name him in print. Perhaps the CBCP believed what is said online does not leak into the public forum, or that the Inquirer’s readers are such that they are unable to use a Google search bar.
Whatever the rationale, the CBCP’s choice amounts to a coward’s way of confronting an issue, criticizing a man in the most public forum possible and still attempting some pretension of anonymity. Bernas, after all, is both priest and constitutionalist, one of the Catholic Church’s most public faces, and a man who in his writing has demonstrated that no matter how the Church claims that Catholicism demands a universality in morality, its own servants believe otherwise. By choosing not to name him, the Church challenges Bernas’ beliefs, while at the same time withholding the fact that it is forced to challenge one of its own.
All this is expected, granting this country’s general unwillingness to confront critics face to face, the same way President Aquino repeatedly said “some people in media” have criticized his administration unfairly—at least until he decided to slam Noli de Castro at the 25th-anniversary party of “TV Patrol.” It is the same way Sen. Tito Sotto will continue to claim he is being bullied by the entirety of cyberspace, while refusing to confront directly the experts and advocates who refute his alleged statements of fact. The value of naming in a debate is to call out the opponent, to say, clearly, that the argument is false, the stance is invalid, to allow for critical engagement especially since this opponent has proven again and again his capacity for rational argument. It is, at the same time, a declaration that you stand by whatever you say, and take the flak when it hits.
The Church’s choice to distance itself from the fact of Bernas’ priesthood comes in the wake of the Church’s declaration of open war against the President and all who support the Reproductive Health bill and what they call the “contraceptive morality.” The battle lines were drawn, at least by the men who fancied themselves on the side of right. The Church claims its majority of like-minded Catholics, an imaginary 90 percent whose numbers are drawn from the numbers of baptismal certificates and little else. Yet it is a 90 percent that includes people like myself, many of us women, Catholic-born, Catholic-educated, baptized under the cathedral of Holy Mother Church, who live and work in a universe that has taught us that discrimination is discrimination, even if the commandment comes from the Pope himself. I believe in God, but I do not believe in the CBCP. The Church has ghosts standing in its ranks. It is why the battle cry of millions sounds oddly like a chorus of hysterical voices from the pulpit.
In his original article, Bernas says that in spite of his own choice to stand with the Church, “freedom of religion means more than just the freedom to believe. It also means the freedom to act or not to act according to what one believes. Hence, the state should not prevent people from practicing responsible parenthood according to their religious belief, nor may churchmen compel President Aquino, by whatever means, to prevent people from acting according to their religious belief.”
In the public letter written by the Bishop of Antipolo—who at least named Bernas in his original letter—he argues that the Church is not preventing the practice of responsible parenthood, and that “what the church does is to try to convince President Aquino and our senators and congressmen not to enact a law that directs the government to promote contraception and provide free contraceptives to people.” At present, he says, “anyone can buy contraceptives from drugstores and even from some ‘convenience stores.’”
It is an odd statement, and one that has repeatedly been debunked, because the “anyone” who can buy does not involve the enormous percentage of the population who are not made aware that the choice exists, who are told that natural contraception is enough, and who do not have the means to buy a condom because the cost of a packet can mean a meal for an entire family.
“I am very much aware,” says Bernas, “of the fact that we live in a pluralist society where various religious groups have differing beliefs about the morality of artificial contraception.” Reyes concedes. “This is true and, therefore, we should respect the beliefs and opinions of others.”
But he says there is a limit to this pluralism, and this issue is one of them. The Church is simply enacting the natural law, one that is above the law of any man or any other religion. “By studying through correct reasoning the nature of the human person, we arrive at this teaching regarding contraception. All human beings, Catholic or not, are obliged to act according to right reason. By the efforts of the Church to go against the RH Bill, the Church is not imposing her religious beliefs on others.”
It does not matter that much of what he says is an insult not only to other religions but also to the “human person” who may not agree with the “correct reasoning” only the Catholic Church can provide. The Church, after all, is not against plurality. They are not against religious freedom. They are not withholding the rights of any individual. What this encounter between Church and Bernas demonstrates is this: that the Church is willing to call out a war, but unwilling to be called an enemy.
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