Oyez! Oyez! The Supreme Court and RH
“Oyez! Oyez! Rise! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the Philippines, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting!”
It has been more than a year since the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, or RA 10354. The decision on its constitutionality is expected in March, but rumors are raising anxiety levels.
Can any new arguments be made at this point as to why the RH Law must be implemented—beyond the tragic deaths from childbirth or pregnancy-related causes of an estimated 5,000 more women in the intervening year? The justices have heard all the arguments. Why then the worry that some may withhold a pro-RH vote? Can it be they are apprehensive about straying from Church precepts? If so, let us propose compelling new evidence to ease those concerns: the teachings of Pope Francis!
In the past year, Francis’ revitalizing vision has been nudging the magisterium toward reform. Directing attention to the pastoral and compassionate Church established 2,000 years ago, this 21st-century Vicar of Christ is electrifying alienated Catholics worldwide. Among them are the many Filipino men and women who struggled for 14 years to get the RH Law passed, only to be thwarted by its suspension by the Court.
After years of suffering strong attacks from Church authorities, RH advocates welcome Francis’ openness, compassion and humility. His exhortations to the bishops are music to our ears: “Religious truth does not change, but it does develop and grow.” “The teacher who is so arrogant as to make decisions for the disciple is not a good priest; he’s a good dictator, an eraser of the religious personalities of others.” “This kind of religiosity, so rigid, wraps itself in doctrines that pretend to provide justifications, but in reality they deny liberty and don’t allow people to grow.”
Contrast Francis’ insistence on a listening Church with countless Sunday homilies attacking the then RH bill despite reputable surveys showing the majority of Filipinos favor it.
We appeal to those still uncertain justices to study Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, the “Joy of the Gospel,” sometimes called the “Magna Carta for Church Reform.” In it, Francis urges every bishop to internalize the “desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” Further, the Church must be “in contact with the homes and the lives of its people,” and “practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing” and work on “above all—allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.”
The many Filipino Catholics who have linked RH to improved lives for poor women and their families welcome Francis’ openness to dialogue: “Pastoral ministry … seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task ….” He continues: “A missionary heart never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness.”
Local social scientists, especially, praise Francis’ call for “a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself…. Faith is not fearful of reason….” Because researchers have spent time in communities conducting intensive studies, the realities they document compel them to favor the RH Law.
Many a Catholic social scientist resonates, therefore, with Francis’ call for “new ways of thinking and doing as times are changing.” Although Francis does not say he favors “artificial” contraception, he does admonish clergy who “reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters,” “discredit those who raise questions [and] constantly point out the mistakes of others,” and behave “as if the poor did not exist.” Comparing empirical evidence on women’s lives—and deaths—to statements on the subject by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines reveals a wide gap in interpretations of social reality.
The Philippines is not alone here. The recently released German bishops’ report on the results of the Vatican-initiated questionnaire for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family acknowledges considerable divergence between Church teachings and the views of its parishioners: “Most of the baptized have an image of the church that, on the one hand, is family friendly in its attitude, whilst at the same time considering her sexual morality to be unrealistic.” “Many no longer wish to be associated with an institution which they regard as unforgiving.” The results of the equivalent Philippine questionnaire are eagerly awaited.
Any justices still apprehensive that a pro-RH vote may contradict their Catholic roots can take heart in Francis’ reform mission. Similarly reassuring is Archbishop Socrates Villegas, CBCP president, who recently reminded the plenary assembly of over 100 bishops: “The Year of the Laity is not only for the supportive and loyal laity but [also] for the critical and distant ones, more importantly those who disagreed with us on the RH law….” “We need to reach out to those who are angry at us bishops, those we have disillusioned and those we have misled or confused by our excessive misplaced prudence or unbecoming lifestyle.”
When contending parties discover common cause, and agree to disagree, workable solutions are possible. Enabling women and couples to plan their families responsibly and in good conscience may serve as common ground for both bishops and RH advocates in building what Pope Francis calls “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” Can our justices do any less? Oyez! Oyez! Rise!
Mary Racelis is a research scientist of the Institute of Philippine Culture, School of Social Sciences, and professorial lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ateneo de Manila University, and at the Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines Diliman.
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