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There’s the Rub

Heart of the matter

It’s one of those fortitude-challenging predicaments in this country that you don’t just have to win once, you have to win them again and again. Reproductive Health (RH) is one of them.

Just when you thought it was a done deal, you’re beset by anxiety it could all be reversed by the Supreme Court, with no small help from the bishops. The ball is literally on the Court’s court now, the justices are all set to judge on its constitutionality next week.

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Most of the bishops remain adamant in their opposition to it. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is headed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, who famously said, “Contraception is corruption.”

That’s what drove a large group of urban poor women, youth and students to troop to the CBCP headquarters last week to try to make them see the light. Hope springs eternal, and miracles have been known to happen, such as when St. Paul was struck by that same light on the way to Damascus. Believing that conciliation is the better inducer of light than confrontation, the group laid flowers in lieu of angry chants on the CBCP’s doorstep.

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They also read a letter addressed to the bishops that reminded them that their own boss in the Vatican, Pope Francis, had spoken emphatically about the Catholic Church needing to stop its obsession with things like contraception, and devoting its attention instead to things like poverty. “In the spirit of the Pope’s call for a ‘new balance,’ we hope that you just join us in trying to feed the hungry, heal the sick and uphold freedom and justice in the Philippines.”

It’s a good message and shows how it’s not just RH that’s on trial here, the local Catholic Church is too. RH may be on trial in the court of law, but the Church is on trial in the court of public opinion. Or more than the court of public opinion, the court of morality. “Quo vadis?” or “Where to now?” is a question that applies more to the local Church than to RH.

That the Church now finds itself at odds with its own Pope, the one authority the bishops loved to quote when he was still Benedict to damn RH and threaten with hellfire, if not excommunication, those who would not heed his words. Now that the Pope is Francis who, in but a year’s time, has pulled up the Vatican, and the world along with it, from the Dark Ages to the Age of Reason, quoting him is the last thing the bishops want to do. It’s not the easiest thing to keep the faithful faithful by harping on the imaginary evil of the imaginary mass murder of imaginary children by contraception, when your boss himself harps only about the very real evil of the very real mass murder of very real children by grinding poverty.

And orders you quite directly to forget the one in favor of the other.

Of course the local bishops have been at pains to show that rather than being opposed to the current Pontiff’s concerns, they share them wholeheartedly. The CBCP has repeatedly issued pastoral letters conscripting Pope Francis’ pro-poor stance. This has taken, in particular, the form of berating government for promoting “noninclusive growth,” or growth that has benefited only the few but not the many, only the rich but not the poor.

But the deeds belie the words, the practice belies the doctrine, the doing (or lack of it) belies the preaching. At the very least, what has the Church itself done to lessen poverty? I’ve always thought those pastoral letters were a little cheeky, drawing attention as they did to what many of those bishops did during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s time. The most scandalous of which, though not by any means the most grievous, being to ask for SUVs on birthdays or other occasions or no occasion at all. Of course government deserves brickbats for failing to lift up the poor along with the growth indexes, but for those who tolerated, if not participated in, corruption to be throwing those brickbats, that’s just asking for it.

At the very most, you want to lessen poverty, you want to distribute the manna in the wilderness more equitably, lessen the number of mouths to feed. Stop being a thorn in the side, or a pain in the behind, of RH.

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The men, women and children who trooped to Intramuros were right to invoke Pope Francis to try to lessen the Church’s resistance to RH, quite apart from bolstering the Supreme Court’s confidence in it. Pope Francis is the one pope—I know of no other—who has seen poverty in all its tangible and terrible ferocity, in the men, women and children who live in the slums of Buenos Aires and elsewhere, in the ragged multitude that shoves and pushes in crowded spaces, where babies cry from lack of milk, where thieves riot from lack of law. You get exposed to things like this and you will be aghast, too, that people can be horrified at the fate of imaginary children and not at the horrifying plight of flesh-and-blood ones.

No, it’s not just RH that’s on trial here, the bishops are too. What indicts them in the court of morality and not just of public opinion is their faith itself, is their religion itself. A faith that, as their current and quite luminous head reminds them, draws its inspiration from someone who did not have his eyes constantly turned heavenward but had them instead fixed on carpenters, fishers, streetwalkers, the lepers, the lame, the blind, and at least one certifiably dead man.

It’s no small irony that the bishops condemn RH on grounds of morality. When the boss of their boss, the son of a carpenter, kept broadly hinting to them what morality was. By saying things like, not all who say, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of God. By saying things like, whatever you do for the least of your brothers, you do for God. For his devoted followers at least, like Pope Francis, that is the essence of their faith.

That is the heart of the matter.

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TAGS: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Catholic Church, CBCP, contraception, reproductive health, RH bill, Socrates villegas
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