The Artist Abroad

To Fight the Good Fight

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NEW YORK—The proposed House Bill 4244, popularly known as the RH Bill, has languished for more than a decade since it was first introduced in 1999. You would think that because of the clear and evident need for sane, government-sponsored family planning and signs of widespread public support for such programs, the bill would by now have become law.

But then most of the public servants who clog up the halls of Congress are not so much interested in being of service to the public—their raison d’etre, after all—as in holding on to power. So there the bill sits, in Congress’s womb, so to speak, a sensible bill waiting to be born but which the institutional Catholic Church patriarchy would love to see aborted. And when these honorable men speak, our solons tremble. To say that the church is backward and medieval is to state the obvious; like in any medieval kingdom, the good bishops, stalwart knights of the realm, are ready to lower the axe on anyone who dares to think independently, who questions the kingdom’s orthodoxy. For to do so is in the end to question their power, the hold that they continue to wield on a supposedly secular state.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines says fervently that it is pro-life, as though the RH bill and its supporters were not. In fact, the CBCP is pro-misery, pro-ignorance, anti-poor, and consistently cross the sacrosanct divide between church and state. Why should single men supposedly without biological families to feed, clothe, and educate, be able to tell lay people how large or small their families should be? And where does it state in the bill that the public is obligated under legal penalties to practice contraception? This isn’t China, with its repressive one-child policy. And when did contraception become abortion? To keep pushing this canard is both disgraceful and hypocritical, and one questions the intelligence, and if not their intelligence, then certainly the morality, of those who insist that the two are one and the same.

Recently, a group of Ateneo de Manila University professors, numbering 192 and from disciplines as varied as the medical sciences, philosophy, and economics, came out with a well-reasoned and forceful statement, urging Congress to pass the RH bill. These professors make it clear that they speak neither for the university, the Society of Jesus, nor for the rest of their colleagues.

They rightly describe the bill: “The RH bill is an equity measure that aims to reduce differential access to reproductive health and family planning services and information. It is the poor—and in particular poor women and their children—who stand to benefit the most from the passage of this bill. And should not the poor be the focal concern of any social institution, be it religion, education, or the government?”

Unfortunately, the poor and the meek have never been the main concern of either government or the Church. This is a Philippine Church that reveals itself to be ossified, looking not to ecumenism or freedom of conscience, or even the current pope’s pronouncement on condoms being acceptable, but to the days when so-called heretics could be and often were burned at the stake.  If I had a time travel machine, I would gladly provide these honorable men with passage to the days of the Inquisition, to insure their happiness.

Naturally the CBCP wasn’t pleased with this insurrection within what they presumed to be very much their turf. It accused the professors of heresy, and demanded that the Ateneo administration investigate—though what exactly there was to investigate these honorable men didn’t quite specify.  (To her credit Senator Miriam Santiago, not someone I usually praise, has defended the professors, citing both academic freedom and relevant theological points.)

And what has been the official response of Ateneo de Manila University? Its president, Fr. Jett Villarin, makes it clear: “Together with our leaders in the Catholic Church, the Ateneo de Manila University does not support the passage of House Bill 4244. As many of these leaders have pointed out, the present form of the proposed bill contains provisions that could be construed to threaten constitutional rights as well as to weaken commonly shared human and spiritual values.”

With regard to the 192 faculty members who endorse the RH bill, he had this to say: “Though the University must differ from their position for the reasons stated above, I appreciate their social compassion and intellectual efforts and urge them to continue in their discernment of the common good.”

This pronouncement, as Inquirer columnist Randy David wisely points out, sounded “more like the head of a corporate body than as the leader of an intellectual community.”  Such a superficial and weak-kneed assessment from the Ateneo comes as no surprise. Has it for instance ever condemned the Church-backed execution of their most illustrious alumnus José Rizal? When did it ever challenge the authority of church leaders? What stance did it take during the dictatorial regime of the Marcoses? By Fr. Villarin’s meekness are we meant to believe these honorable men are infallible? And precisely how the bill undermines constitutional rights he never spells out, for the simple reason that it doesn’t. As the manifesto issued by the professors makes abundantly clear, the bill reinforces the right provided by the Constitution of 1987, that the public have access to affordable and comprehensive health services, including family planning. It is perverse then to believe that legislation that helps the underprivileged somehow threatens “human and spiritual values.”

Nor are the professors alone. According to the university’s campus newspaper, The Guidon, “individuals from Ateneo de Naga University, Ateneo de Davao University, Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan University and Ateneo de Zamboanga University” also added their signatures to the endorsement, bringing the total to 1,439 signatures.

I am an alumnus of this university, and one thing that the Jesuits kept hammering into our heads was that each one of us be a man for others. And indeed there have been many who followed that maxim even at the cost of their lives—Rizal, Emmanuel Lacaba, Ninoy Aquino, Evelio Javier, Edgar Jopson, to name a few—and countless individuals, living and dead, some well-known, most anonymous, whose lives I daresay are more honorable than those of our honorable men of the cloth.

The proposed RH bill is one that makes it possible for this government to be a government for others. Why are the Jesuits backing away from this, a good fight?

Copyright L.H. Francia 2012

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