05 October 2010

Standing by the Catholic Church

Finally, an article that speaks my sentiments on the issue. Except perhaps on the facts surounding the supposed excommunication threat on President Aquino. Recently released transcript of that interview with CBCP President Bishop Odchimar has him saying: "excommunication is not a proximate possibility". There has been no intention to threaten P-Noy with excommunication, as previously written, but still is being bandied about in many media outlets and the net.

I won't also be surprised if pro-RH groups won't be too happy with his dialogue issue # 5: "working together to build prosperous, just and sustainable communities so that it does not matter even if our population, as expected sometime in the next five years, exceeds 100 million people..."

Even when fighting for what is right and just, the Church should never engage in a no holds barred fight. Unfortunately, the humanly sensitive and spiritually rich message of the Church's teaching on sexuality is being drowned by political rhetoric of the hardline variety, and spinned into a dogmatic caricature by the secular media and enemies of the Church. What is left for the public and lay faithful to digest are either political slogans or misrepresented doctrines.

Rom 12,2 says: "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect."

The Church will, and should always be, a counter-culture to a worldly orientation, a voice in the wilderness speaking to the secular city. The Church will, and should, always engage the State -- meddle in politics, as critics would say -- in matters of faith and morals, and when the common good and the rights of the poor are at stake. But this can be done best when the Church's teaching office is more mater et magistra, mother and teacher, not political operative.


by Dean Tony La Viña
5 October 2010, Manila Standard Today

Standing by the Catholic Church

Thirty-one years ago, in a theology course in Ateneo de Manila taught by the late Fr. Tom O’Shaughnessy S.J., I memorized all the major social encyclicals of the Catholic Church. Fr. Tom was the most organized teacher I ever had (he was also our Logic professor), and gave fill-in-the-blanks and other objective type exams that would test our knowledge of Church doctrine on such matters as labor rights, economic development, and yes population, family planning and contraception (all of which we now bundle together as reproductive health issues). He was also a recognized expert on Islam and exemplified tolerance and respect of other religions and points of views. I remember at first being disappointed in that course. I had looked forward that semester to learning about Theology of Liberation but instead we studied what seemed like obscure texts from the Pope in Rome, with Latin titles like *Rerum Novarum* ("On Capital and Labor"), *Populorum Progressio *("On the Development of Peoples"), and the controversial *Humanae Vitae* ("Human Life").

Today, I am very grateful for Fr. O’Shaughnessy's course where I learned by heart and mind Catholic social teaching. This teaching would guide me in many decisions – from such personal matters as marriage and parenthood concerns to my approach to political issues such as human rights, environmental protection and social injustice. Knowing Catholic social teaching, and secure and confident in its truthfulness, also did something formative for me intellectually and professionally: it enabled me to engage with the modern world without fear and without antagonism for those who thought differently.

Having solid knowledge of Catholic social teaching enabled me, for example, to engage in a constructive manner in the Christian-Marxist dialogue in the 1980s without fear of being co-opted or manipulated. In
the 1990s, as I studied and later on worked in the United States, I lived and worked with and among homosexual and lesbian friends and colleagues, an experience that challenged my fundamental beliefs about sexuality and family. Finally, in recent years in my work as an environmental lawyer and governance practitioner, without abandoning or compromising my Catholic beliefs, I have partnered with colleagues working on reproductive health.

I have learned when to disagree with those that have different perspectives; more importantly, I have been able to identify common grounds that allow collaboration. Thus with Marxists, I can work with them on issues involving social justice; with homosexual and lesbian activists, on discrimination issues; and with reproductive health advocates, on maternal and children's health and on resource management issues. Common ground is achievable if all persons are motivated by good will and by charity.

Let's take the case of reproductive health. As first articulated in 1968 by Pope Paul VI in *Humanae Vitae*, the Church teaches that "responsible parenthood designates the intelligent and free manner the spouses have at their disposal to fulfill their mission of cooperating with God in the transmission of life.” As a result, every marital act that is intentionally rendered unfruitful such as abortion and the use of artificial contraception is evil in itself since it is contrary to the procreative purpose of marriage; results in the moral decay that ensues in sex without consequence; and harms true love and deprives God of His sovereign role as the supreme giver of life. As Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical letter *Evangelium Vitae*, artificial birth control depersonalizes and exploits sexuality; thus the original import of human sexuality, which is the giving of self as a gift and acceptance of another, becomes distorted.

As I understand it, the Church teaching on reproductive health is above all about love – the love between husband and wife, love for children and family that is the fruit of that love, and ultimately the love of God that forgives us and that enables us to be faithful to the Word in spite of our sinfulness and scarce resources. This is a beautiful message and the Church should not be ashamed of it. But when this teaching is demeaned with such toxic statements as "all contraception is abortion" or "excommunication is a proximate possibility" (for the President), the message is lost and the Catholic Church is accused of being a bully with a medieval mindset.

To be honest, it has always perplexed me on why such a profound message of love is frequently delivered belligerently, often sliding into vicious name-calling (use of words like "pro-death", "baby-killers", etc.) for political gain. This in turn begets responses as we have seen in the protest of Carlos Celdran where what many considered as holy and consecrated ground was disrespected. Unless all of us – whatever side we are on this issue – step back and rethink our strategies, I am afraid we are on a slippery slope towards bigotry and even religious-based violence. It is clear to me that neither the Catholic Church nor Mr. Celdran and his supporters intentionally want this to happen but let us be forewarned that in many places in the world very bad things happen in the name of or against religion.

Does this mean that the Catholic Church should not seek to influence public policy on reproductive health? Of course not. If the Catholic Church is secure in its teaching, it should engage with the state and with the public on this subject with the following issues as paramount:

(1) freedom of conscience - every citizen should be able to make informed decisions about their reproductive health options without coercion by state, church or other entity;

(2) freedom of conscience also means the right of Catholic or other medical professionals to make professional decisions consistent with their respective beliefs without being forced to promote means that they consider violative of their individual consciences;

(3) finding a consensus, based on scientific and cultural considerations, on how to communicate reproductive health options so that bias for or against one set of means is minimized;

(4) establishing the best maternal and child care system possible so that maternal or infant mortality is reduced, if not eliminated;

(5) working together to build prosperous, just and sustainable communities so that it does not matter even if our population, as expected sometime in the next five years, exceeds 100 million people. In all of these, we must be mindful that it is the poor that suffers most in our society's inability to find consensus in the issue of reproductive health and population.

Disagreements will remain despite a well-conducted dialogue where every one is in good faith. Agreement on the use of contraceptives, particularly those which the Church consider abortifacient but not considered as such by many in the medical community, is for example not likely. But there are democratic procedures to resolve this. The President must decide as a matter of constitutional duty what the executive department should do; what this means to him as a Catholic is up to the President and his spiritual director and is not for public debate. The President is not above all faiths, as his spokesman has said, but he is the President of
all Filipinos regardless of their faith (including atheists). As for Congress, the House and the Senate should bring the reproductive health bill to a vote as soon as the dialogue is done. Citizens and their organizations, including the Catholic Church and other religious groups, can dissent from these policy decisions and make their views known through their votes in subsequent elections.

Realizing the immensity of responsibility that the Church teaching on conjugal and family life seemed to impose on married couples, I was initially shocked, even angered by it. The message of the teaching was lost in the language that proscribed contraception and implied that couples were not sovereign in their bedrooms. For many years, when I was still single, I struggled accepting this intellectually. That ended when I got married at the age of twenty-five. My wife and I together prayed and discerned what the teaching of the Church meant to us, why it was important to follow, and what resources were available so we could be faithful. Paradoxically, two minds and hearts were better than one in making this tough decision.

In the midst of this discernment process, we were also graced by an event that irrevocably changed our life as a couple: three months after getting married, my wife was operated on for an ovarian cyst and her doctor told us that we better have children right away if we wanted to have any at all. When that happened, we abandoned our well laid plans not to have children yet while she prioritized her career, I finished law school, and we built up savings from our meager salaries as a philosophy teacher and NGO worker. In that event and during our discernment process, the message of love that is the heart of the teaching became clear and we joyfully made the decision to obey the Church – to be always open to life and to use natural means to plan our family. The fruits of this decision are three sons – now young men as passionate about life and opinionated on issues (including this one) as us. How can we have any regrets?

Antonio G. M. La Viña
Ateneo School of Government
Email: tonylavs@gmail.com

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