Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Father Bernas Takes a Stand on the Reproductive Health Bill

JOAQUIN BERNAS, SJ, weighs in on the highly controversial Reproductive Health Bill currently being debated in the Philippine Congress, in Mass Media and online in the social networks.

If and when this legislation is passed by Congress and signed by the President, the Catholic Church opposition and its staunchest allies will surely seek to have it annulled by the Supreme Court--in a case destined to be historic as far as religion, education and social policy making in the PH are concerend.

Thus the many salient points Joaquin Bernas makes in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column are likely to echo in the coming controversies and debates over the RH Bill. I hope to address them in a series of now-rare "long form" Philippine Commentaries and invite readers old and new to participate in the Comment Threads.

"First, let me start by saying that I adhere to the teaching of the Church on artificial contraception even if I am aware that the teaching on the subject is not considered infallible doctrine by those who know more theology than I do. Moreover, I am still considered a Catholic and Jesuit in good standing by my superiors, critics notwithstanding!"
Commentary on Bernas-1:

In the above, Fr. Bernas mentions a little-appreciated point about current Church Doctrine on "artificial contraception"-- that it is not one of the Churches officially designated INFALLIBLE TEACHINGS. Even though this opinion is held by  "theologians who know more than" he does, Fr. Bernas claims to nonetheless adhere to the Church's teaching on the matter.  As proof of this he notes that his religious superiors still consider him to be in good standing within the Catholic Church.  (((Whew, only a Jesuit could put it like that and thus smuggle in some Freedom of Speech wiggle room on the issue of contraception without being excommunicated or fall out of good standing!))) But I happen to agree with his assessment of the current state of the Church's teaching on contraception. Papal infallibility has not been proclaimed for its teachings on birth control -- which only means that it COULD CHANGE. In other words, the present Church teachings on artificial means of birth control are corrigible and reformable.   Upon close examination, this simple observation made in Bernas No. 2 has a severe rhetorical implication for diehard anti-RH Bill forces inside and outside the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.  They cannot claim that the Vatican won't ever change its position on artificial contraception. Indeed, the Pope could at any time allow certain forms of artificial contraception that the Church authorities could establish as definitively and technologically non-abortifacient. A hint of this possibility has already been given in Pope Benedict's recent statements condoms.

Bernas No. 2

Father Bernas was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission appointed by President Cory to draft the later ratified 1987 Constitution.  He addresses  certain essential operating principles Freedom of Religion at those who oppose the RH Bill's passage into law on religious grounds--that such a law would allow behavior contrary to Catholic doctrine and faith.
"Second (very important for me as a student of the Constitution and of church-state relations), I am very much aware of the fact that we live in a pluralist society where various religious groups have differing beliefs about the morality of artificial contraception. But 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. As the “Compendium on the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church” says, “Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups” and “Those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.” [italics and bolding by DJB]

DJB Commentary on Bernas No. 2

Having first expressed his adherence to Church teaching and continued "good standing" within it, Father Bernas here in Point No. 2 makes crystal clear, his take on Freedom of Religion and I congratulate him for the lucid expression of it above.  For it is a stunning statement if you look at it more closely and mine it for all its panoply of rhetorical and constitutional implications.

For example, Father Bernas is surely indirectly chastising public persons such as Rep. Manny "The Pacman" Pacquiao and Rep. Pablo Garcia who invoke their belief in God and the Church's teachings in  opposing the RH Bill.  As with the most conservative among the Catholic Bishops  they declare that their opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill is based on a strict interpretation of, and adherence to the Church's teachings and is essentially an exercise of their Freedom of Religion. But Father Bernas' point above challenges such Catholic  because their right to exercise Freedom of Religion depends on recognizing an equal right by others to practice their religion, and most importantly, "to act or not to act" according "to what one believes."  

Fr. Bernas is saying that even if Catholics believe (as some of them certainly do) that "human life begins at fertilization and not at implantation" they may not prevent others from believing that "conception" of human life begins at some other earlier or later stage of the reproductive process. Moreover such Catholics have no right to prevent others "to act or not act" upon such different belief. 

I agree with this characterization of Freedom of Religion. It presents the radical anti RH Bill wing of the Catholic Church with an ethical dilemma as follows. In the crafting of laws and public policies by Congresses of Catholic majority composition, how are conscientious officials what is the that some Catholics may deem as going against Catholic doctrinal teaching in one way or another. 
The 1987 Constitution contains the following provisions in  the Bill of Rights which many regard as a definition of the Freedom of Religion in the PH (with obvious Anglospheric roots): 
Section 5. [1] No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. 
[2] The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. 
[3] No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.
 Of these three I think the last contains a relevant and material point to the RH Bill as follows. While the No Religious Test provision is conventionally interpreted as covering only the idea that anyone otherwise qualified can run for political office regardless of his Religion, I think it can be given a much wider interpretation and applies to far many more situations involving questions of Freedom of Religion and Separation of Church and State.

For example,  who will deny that getting married and having children is both a CIVIL and HUMAN RIGHT protected by the Constitution and the Civil Code? We can surely assert that, "No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil and political rights," such as the right to get married to have children. Or NOT to have children at a particular time in a couple's life and relationship."

I don't see why "No religious test" should be restricted in interpretation to "a test of what is a person's religious affiliation." I think the provision actually means something much more. I think that "No Religious Test" means that the Congress may not pass laws or craft social policy based on some particular THEOLOGICAL consideration. The "public morality" enforced by the Laws, in my opinion, cannot be based on any theology at all for that would violate the absolute neutrality towards Establishments of Religion that Separation of Church and State demands.

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