By: Elizabeth Angsioco
Published in Manila Standard Today
Dated October 23, 2010
As the debates on the reproductive health bill continue, I’d like to focus not on the substance of opposing positions but on information that made me reflect on whether there is dissonance within the Catholic hierarchy on the issue. I do not claim expertise on the Catholic Church but I feel the responsibility to share with the public certain interesting and important information.
I have been quite busy with various RH-related activities and in most, I faced staunch opposition from those who speak on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. On the surface, one gets the impression that the hierarchy stands solidly against the RH bill. I had certainly thought so—until I got to know more.
One television appearance in particular interested me. I was in Boy Abunda’s “Bottomline” as part of the panel; we were called Bottomliners. The episode featured Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez as the main interviewee. Each bottomliner was asked to prepare a set of questions that Boy would then ask the Bishop. I took great care in formulating mine because I was determined to know if the possibility of negotiating with the hierarchy indeed existed. Two of my questions were: 1) What parts of the RH Bill can you support and what problems will these address? 2) How do you propose to solve the very high maternal mortality rates in our country?
All my questions were used during the taping. When asked what provisions of the bill are worth-supporting, the good bishop said that HE HAS NOT READ THE BILL! I almost fell off my seat. On the second, he was quick to say that addressing maternal mortality is a government responsibility. Not surprisingly, the Bishop mostly delved on why the Catholic hierarchy opposes the RH Bill.
It was unfortunate that Bishop Iñiguez’ responses to my two questions were not aired. I was hoping that viewers would see those important portions so people may realize that the hierarchy’s position is worth scrutinizing.
What process (if there is one) does the Catholic Church use in making positions on issues? Don’t they first study before issuing statements? How could the good bishop oppose something that he has not even read and how could he say that addressing deaths of poor Filipino mothers is a government responsibility and in the same breath oppose a government that intends to deal with the problem? As I said during the show’s last gap, I was disappointed.
In a meeting after, the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network discussed a paper entitled “Talking Points for Dialogue on the Reproductive Health Bill (HB 96; filed July 1, 2010)” authored by Jesuit Fathers Genilo, Carroll, and Bernas. The paper’s introductory note said that it is “intended to stimulate meaningful and thoughtful dialogue on the Reproductive Health Bill (HB 96)…”
The Jesuits are known as the “progressive block” within the Roman Catholic Church. Some of them are even involved in movements for societal change. On RH, this Jesuit paper asserted that the bill is not acceptable in its present form but that “total rejection… will not change the status quo of high rates of infant mortality, maternal deaths, and abortions.” The paper proposes to “amend objectionable provisions and retain those that actually improve the lives of Filipinos.”
At the very least, the authors studied the RH Bill. This is much better than Bishop Iniguez’ admission that he has not read it at all. Also, the paper is perhaps the first from a Catholic group that admitted to the urgent need to address crucial problems such as maternal mortality and abortion. To me, this paper dissents from the over-all rejection of the Bill by those who speak in behalf of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Without delving into the paper’s substance, I am constrained to ask if the authors have the authority to speak for the hierarchy, or is the paper a manifestation of differences in opinion among Catholic groups? If it is the latter, I say that this is not the first.
We will recall that former Department of Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral was severely criticized by the CBCP when she allowed the distribution of condoms because of the serious HIV and AIDS threat. The bishops strongly oppose the use of condoms even as protection against HIV and AIDS.
However, the Training Manual on HIV and AIDS for Catholic Church Pastoral Workers published in 2007 endorsed by the CBCP, and with foreword by Archbishop Angel N. Lagdameo, then CBCP President said (pp. 38 of the Resource Book):
“In the case of HIV-discordant couples (where only one partner is HIV infected), both partners should be helped to decide for themselves the appropriate means to defend themselves against the infection. One of their options may be to discontinue sex. However, should they decide to continue their sexual relationship, consistent and correct condom use can help minimize the risk of transmission… (Itals mine)”
Clearly therefore, there was recognition and ACCEPTANCE of the benefits of using condoms. This runs counter to the CBCP’s attacks against Secretary Cabral and condoms. Were the bishops again acting without studying? How could the CBCP teach one thing and say another? Or did Archbishop Lagdameo’s CBCP differ in opinion from the 2009 CBCP?
Another possible case of dissonance can be traced as far back as 1990, during Pres. Cory Aquino’s term. On 14 August 1990, Bishop Jesus Varela issued a statement after a meeting between the panels of Bishops (that he headed) and government (headed by then Secretary Alran Bengzon) on government family planning program. The Varela statement included the following:
‘The Church reiterates its objections to contraception and sterilization and expresses its reservations about the moral acceptability of certain aspects of the Program. But in a pluralistic society and recognizing the freedom of those who disagree with Church principles, the Church respects the government’s toleration of other means that the conscience of others may not object to and that the law on abortion does not forbid. Nonetheless, the Church seeks a greater emphasis on natural family planning as consistent with moral teachings and religious beliefs.’
This statement issued 20 years ago is much more liberal and accepting of other viewpoints than what we hear from the present bishops.
The reasonable conclusions from all these are: some within the Catholic hierarchy do not study the issues before making public positions; priests’ and bishops’ positioning on family planning and RH also change; and, if we continue to closely scrutinize the Roman Catholic hierarchy, we may find that dissonance within exists.