THE REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH ACT, Part 1: Primacy of Conscience in Catholic Theology

1 Aug

Co-sponsorship speech on 1 August 2011

As principal author, I am now tasked to co-sponsor Senate Bill No. 2865, officially titled “An act providing for a national policy on reproductive health and population and development,” also known as the Senate version of the RH bill.  It is the companion bill to House Bill No. 4244, which is undergoing plenary debate in the House of Representatives.

Reproductive health bills have been passed by the majority of Catholic countries, particularly by Catholic developing countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Other countries include Italy, Poland, Paraguay, Portugal, and Spain. When the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), now known as the UN Population Fund, profiled 48 Catholic countries, only six countries did not have a reproductive health law.  The Philippines is one of them.

In our country, the Catholic church is the only major religion that opposes the RH bill.  Other major Christian churches have officially endorsed the RH bill, and in fact have published learned treatises explaining their position.  They are:

  • Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthood, 2007
  • National Council of Churches in the Philippines, 2009
  • Iglesia ni Cristo, 2010
  • Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, 2011

The position of these Christian churches is supported by the  most authoritative body of Islamic clerics in the Philippines, the Assembly of Darul-Iftah of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.  These Islamic clerics constitute the top-ranking ulama who are deemed to have the authority to issue opinions on matters facing Islam and Muslims.  In 2003, they issued a fatwah or religious ruling called “Call to Greatness.”  It gives Muslim couples a free choice on whether to practice family planning, particularly child spacing.

Further, the RH bill is supported by a big majority of Filipinos in the country, as shown by certain nationwide surveys.  In October 2008, Social Weather Stations reported that 71 percent were in favor of the RH bill.  In October 2010, Pulse Asia reported that 69 percent were in favor of the RH bill.

Vatican Council 2 and the Revolution in Moral Theology

Despite these surveys, certain Catholics, notably certain bishops, seem poised to fight to the death against the RH bill.  To understand why Catholics are so divided on this issue, and why there is such fierce antipathy, we must go back to the Second Vatican Council, the greatest of the councils held by the Catholic Church.  A Vatican council is an ecumenical council, meaning that it includes the whole Christian world, or the universal Church.  The decisions of an ecumenical council are considered authoritative.

Vatican 2 was held in 1962 to 1965, and immediately unleashed a tidal wave of change.  It is now viewed as the most tumultuous decade in the whole modern history of the Church.  In the words of an eminent Catholic historian:[1] “So many spiritual and religious landmarks were suddenly swept away that the average Catholic was left in a state of complete bewilderment.”

The central issue of Vatican 2 was authority.  Before Vatican 2, the typical Catholic accepted the authoritarian structure of the Church “as a dictate of divine revelation.”[2] My generation were still children at that time.  We were taught that the Pope was a kind of superhuman potentate, whose every word was a command coming from a supernatural authority.  I recall that the autocratic procedures of the Church were positively medieval.

But with Vatican 2, the seeds of a democratic revolution were sown.  It emphasized that the Church is primarily the whole people of God.  It called for dialogue between all members of the Church.  It asserted that the Pope and bishops are collegial.  And it called for the establishment of senates among the priests and of pastoral councils that include the laity.

With authority as the central issue, the Church reached a state of extreme tension when Pope Paul 6 issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae.  An encyclical is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Catholic Church.  Humanae Vitae condemned the use of artificial methods of contraception, including the pill.  Notably, the Pope did not act collegially with the bishops in issuing his encyclical.

The current problem of authority in the Church is rooted in a conflict between two theologies:[3]

  1. Traditional theology still sees the Church as a superstate governed by an absolute monarch, whose aim is to impose the maximum amount of conformity.
  2. Progressive theology sees the Church as above all a fellowship of spiritual communities held together in essentials by their recognition of papal primacy.

In the pre-Vatican 2 Church, the independence of the individual conscience was kept to a minimum.  In the past, the task of the layman was simply to obey the directives of bishops and priests.  But in the post-Vatican 2 Church, there is now a mood of questioning.  Many Catholics, as Philippine surveys show, are no longer willing to obey the Church blindly.  “In a few years the climate in the Church changed so drastically that few bishops dared to express a hard line on Pope Paul’s birth control encyclical.  Most of them followed a generally permissive policy.”[4]

The divide between pre-Vatican 2 theology and post-Vatican 2 theology is mirrored in the RH debate among Catholic Filipinos.  Theology means the branch of knowledge that deals with Christian theistic religion.  It also means the organized body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God; in other words, divinity.

After Vatican 2, the Catholic church has been divided into two schools of thought, in theology and in ecclesiology.  The two camps in theology are:

  1. The classicist or traditional Catholics on the one hand; and
  2. The historically conditioned or progressive Catholics on the other hand.

The two schools of thoughts on ecclesiology, meaning the branch of knowledge that deals with the Christian Church, are:

1. Pre-Vatican 2 ecclesiology, which stresses the constitutional and   hierarchical aspects of the Church;

2.   Post-Vatican 2 progressive ecclesiology, which understands the  Church as the whole People of God, always in need of renewal and reform.

This division into two schools of thought in theology and in ecclesiology represents a crisis of authority within the Catholic Church.  This crisis is represented as a transition, and thus has a certain implication.  In the words of a Catholic historian:[5]

One way of looking at the current crisis of authority is to see it as the travails of a Church still trying to make the transition from the classicist to a historically conscious worldview.  The classicist mentality viewed the Church as moving through history, but more or less unaffected by history.  The historically conscious point of view, however, acknowledged how much institutions, governing precepts, and basic ideas about religion and morality are shaped by history, and therefore how relative they are.

The post-Vatican 2 period has seen a revolution in moral theology in the Catholic church, because of the following factors:

  • The acceptance of the historical dimension.
  • The profound shift of emphasis on the Church not only as a hierarchical institution, but also as a sacrament, as people of God, and as servants.
  • The adoption by Vatican 2 of an ecumenical point  of view, which now considers the experience, reflection, and wisdom of the other Christian churches.

Vatican 2 emphasizes the nature of the Church, as an eschatological, very imperfect, and unfinished reality.  Eschatology is the branch of theology that deals with the four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.  In the past, Catholics viewed certain moral doctrines as immutable.  But today, many Catholics now accept that so-called immutable moral doctrines should be legitimately re-examined.

One relevant shift in moral theology concerns the principle of proportionalism, which is a new way of looking at actions that cause a double effect, one good and one bad.  According to the theory of proportionalism, a person does not sin in causing the bad effect, if there was a proportionate reason.  The basis for this theory is that there is no sin, if the person’s intention was aimed at a good effect and not at the bad effect.  Thus, very few actions could be labeled as intrinsically evil.  Certainly RH is not an intrinsic evil.

Another shift involves the identity of the priest, including the bishop. Today, being a priest really means:

  • The person of the priest is no longer sacred.  There is no longer a strict division between the sacred and the profane.
  • The treatment of priests and bishops as a special caste in society is no longer observed.  The Church does not consist of the priests and bishops alone.  The Church consists of the whole faith community.  Catholicism is no longer an affair of the person who happened to be born a Catholic, but an affair of the human being who is personally committed.
  • The priest is not a special person, just because he performs strictly cultic tasks, such as presiding at the Eucharist and administering the sacraments.

With these recent developments in the identity of the priest, one historian was moved to comment:[6] “It is no wonder then that many priests suffer from a sense of confusion about their role.”

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae

The Catholic opposition to the RH bill is based on the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae issued by Pope Paul 6.  The Latin title literally means “Of Human Life,” but it is more popularly translated as “On the Regulation of Birth.”  This encyclical is the result of a Special Papal Commission established by Pope John 23 and concluded during the term of Pope Paul 6.  The commission submitted two reports: the majority report, and the minority report.  The majority report proposed that contraception should no longer be condemned.  The minority report urged the Pope to continue to condemn contraception.

Paradoxically, Pope Paul 6 decided in favor of the minority view.  His unusual decision shook the Catholic world, and that is the reason why the Catholics in this country are so intensely divided over the RH bill.

After Pope Paul 6 rejected the majority report, many Catholics were no longer ready to give blind obedience to his decree.  It is fair to say that no moral issue in the 20th century impacted so profoundly on the discipline of moral theology.  As a result of the contretemps and the succeeding controversy, Catholics now raise such questions on how conscience is to be sought, the response due to the ordinary magisterium or teaching function of the Pope and bishops, and the meaning of the guidelines of the Holy Spirit.

Catholic theologians and even some Episcopal conferences voiced opposition to the Humanae Vitae encyclical, or at least took positions that were less than enthusiastic in their support.  Surveys in the United States, for example, have indicated that the overwhelming majority (more than 80%) of Catholics of childbearing age do not, in fact, observe the encyclical’s teachings.

On the one hand, the controversial encyclical adopted the minority report which condemns artificial contraception, based on the following arguments:

·  The constant and perennial teaching of the Church.

·  The natural law that certain acts and the generative processes are in some way especially inviolable, precisely because they are generative.  Contraception is evil, because it changes an act which is naturally oriented to procreation, into an act which is oriented to the mutual benefit of the spouses.

On the other hand, the encyclical rejected the majority report which supports artificial contraception, based on the following arguments:

·  Traditional teaching fails to recognize the evolutionary character of that teaching.  For example, the official Church has changed its teaching in such matters as religious liberty and usury.[7]  A change in that traditional teaching would not necessarily undermine the moral teaching authority of the Church.  Such a change is to be seen rather as a step toward a more mature comprehension of the whole doctrine of the Church.

·  The natural-law theory of those who support the traditional teaching has been proved to be erroneous.  Because of this mentality, many advances in medical science were prohibited for a time, and the same was true of other areas of scientific experimentation.  The conjugal act must be viewed not as an isolated reality but in a larger context of human love, family life, education, etc.  This is called the principle of totality.  Sexuality is not ordered only to procreation.  Sacred Scripture says not only: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), but also: “they become one flesh” (2:24), portraying the partner as another self (2:18).

Allow me to emphasize the most categorical support for artificial contraception in the majority opinion:

In some cases intercourse can be required as a manifestation of self-giving love, directed to the good of the other person or of the community, while at the same time a new life cannot be received.  This is neither egocentricity nor hedonism, but a legitimate communication of persons through gestures proper to beings composed of body and soul with sexual powers.

The whole controversy over the encyclical is painful and disturbing to a Catholic.  But it has also aroused the ordinary Catholic to be much more aware of her own personal responsibility.  It has made the Catholic realize that the Church hierarchy does not have all the answers.  It has forced her to think about the role of individual conscience.

The teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception is one of the important reasons why the absolute authority of the Church has grown weaker over the years.  The RH Act is a result of the deepened sense of history among Catholics.  Many of us Catholics are now more aware that our Church authorities made wrong decisions in the past.  To our mind, those errors show that certain teachings should only be relative to their own times, and not permanent for all times.  I very humbly appeal to Church authorities to emphasize strong leadership on moral issues such as war and peace, poverty, and corruption in government, instead of a non-issue like the RH Act.

Humanae Vitae defends the rhythm method.  Thus, it rests its argument on the physiological structure of the act.  However, certain contemporary theologians insist that the basic criterion for the meaning of human actions is the total person, and not some isolated aspect of the person.

I very humbly submit that the reason for an exclusive rhythm method given in Humanae Vitae is too strongly biological.  I very humbly submit that Humanae Vitae has opened a disconnect with Vatican 2 which allowed for a wider basis for evaluating the morality of such a human act, namely, “the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.”[8]

Reformulation of Catholic Doctrine

After Vatican Council 2, Catholic doctrines began to be reformulated under the recent historical theology.  According to a Church historian, the guiding principles of this new historical theology are:[9]

·  The inadequacy of every era to define truth for future eras.

·  The traditional view of revelation as the transmission of definite fixed concepts, was replaced by the idea of revelation as a personal self-disclosure by which God encounters the total person and communicates with him in a historical dialogue.

·  Therefore, no formula of faith can exhaust the truth.  It can be exchanged for another formula more meaningful to the contemporary mind.

·  Every formulation of a divine mystery is only the beginning, never the terminus.

·  A theory of the development of dogma which emphasizes the social, historical, and non-conceptual forces impinging on this process.

On the basis of these principles, Catholic doctrines have been reformulated.  Allow me to take an overview of this process.  One of the first to reformulate Catholic doctrine was a famous book entitled A New Catechism, and subtitled Catholic Faith for Adults.  It was originally published in 1966, but later revised in 1970, under the general responsibility of the Dutch hierarchy.  It became an international bestseller.

This so-called Dutch Catechism contained a section on Family Planning.  It noted that there was a clear development in the late 1960s, both within and outside the Church, toward the use of several methods in regulating births.  The Dutch Catechism said:[10]

There is now a growing sense of the independent human value of sexuality.  Sexuality and fertility are seen more clearly as values which are combined in the one totality of life, rather than as factors simply arranged in the relationship of means to an end. . . .

Are all methods of regulation of births of equal value to the Christian conscience?  The council gave no answer to this question.  It does, however, call on married people to ask themselves conscientiously whether the practices in question do, or fail to do, full justice to the great personal values which should be expressed in sexual intercourse and in the whole of modern life. . . . The last word lies with the conscience, not with the doctor or with the confessor.  But reverence for life undoubtedly demands that no practices be chosen which could be harmful to health for the affective life.

Nearly two decades later, in 1986, an Oxford University chaplain took note of the then raging debate on family planning after Vatican Council 2.  He wrote:[11]

The resolution of this dilemma between the care for the family and responsible parenthood, on the one hand, and the sustaining love, on the other, seems to be found in contraception.  But as everyone knows, the teaching of the Catholic church forbids the use of artificial contraceptives . . . There seems to be an impasse at this point . . . .  It may be, therefore, that a positive attitude, marked by purity of heart, could help most to resolve the impasse.

By 1994, a widely-hailed masterpiece, the book entitled Catholicism, stated:[12]

The birth control question, once a sharply divisive issue in the Catholic church, is no longer a matter of intense discussion among the theologians.  But it retains its importance as a paradigm of the 20th century debates concerning the nature of Catholic morality and the limits of Catholic teaching authority.

What is really the issue here, therefore, is not birth control in this generic sense but contraception, i.e., the intentional placing of a material obstacle to the conception of a child: e.g., a contraceptive pill, an intrauterine device, contraceptive foam, a condom.

One side argues that contraception by such artificial means is always wrong. (That remains the official teaching of the Church today).  The other side argues that contraception may be not only legitimate under certain circumstances but even mandatory.  This side speaks in terms of “responsible parenthood. . . .”

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is a theory, originating among Latin American theologians, which interprets liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of eschatological salvation.  Liberation theology is a species of progressive theology, which is based on the following principles:

  • The Church, not just the hierarchy, is a mystery, or a sacrament.
  • The Church, not just the hierarchy, is the whole People of God.
    • The whole People of God participates in the mission of Christ, and not just in the mission of the hierarchy.
    • The mission of the Church includes service to those in need, and not just the preaching of the Gospel or the celebration of the sacraments.

Liberation theology is a part of post-Vatican 2 ecclesiology, which emphasizes the nature of the Church as an earthly community of human beings who have a mission in and for the world that includes the struggle on behalf of justice, peace, and human rights.

The appearance of liberation theology has been called “one of the most significant developments of the last several decades.”[13]  It is called “a new way of doing theology.”  Classical theology aimed at a deeper understanding of faith.  Liberation theology aims to transform the world, following the famous dictum of Karl Marx that the task of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change the world.

Classical theology seemed removed from day-to-day experience.  Liberation theology has grown out of the experience of certain Catholics with the harsh reality of the miserable poor.  Classical theology interpreted Jesus’ message of the kingdom as a guide to personal morality.  Liberation theology sees Jesus’ message as above all a call to struggle against the social forces of oppression.  Liberation theology believes that the kingdom of God is partially realized, when social justice and love are advanced in society.  When we take a step toward social justice and love, we take one further step toward the final consummation of the kingdom of God.

I humbly submit that the struggle for an RH bill to protect the health and quality of life of the mother and child in the context of unspeakable poverty is part of liberation theology.  It emphasizes that the Church’s existence is not for itself, but for others.  Accordingly, to liberation theology, the Church must listen to the world, and be evangelized by it.

According to the principal theologian of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez, the Church should be a place of liberation where there is a break from an unjust social order.[14]  I respectfully submit that in the Philippines, the Church must take a clear stand against social injustice.  In all humility, I dare to echo the call of liberation theology: the first step in abolishing injustice is to recognize how much the Church itself is tied to the unjust system that oppresses the very poor.  RH is available to the rich; why should it not be made available to the very poor?

Catholic support for RH is a call to the major themes of liberation theology in a developing country like the Philippines, namely:

  • The injustices visited on the Filipino people by neocolonialism and imperialism.
  •  Reinterpretation of salvation to include every form of servitude; and
  • The kingdom of God as beginning in this world, in this country, the Philippines, in this time, now.

In the light of the Filipino experience of the poor, we should take a profoundly historical approach to God.  The self-revelation of God and the Filipino’s human response is an ongoing historical process.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not an “unmoved mover” but a God whose very essence consists of love.  The RH bill is an enterprise in social justice and in love for the poor.

In 1986, the Vatican made a positive critique of liberation theology by issuing the document entitled Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.  According to the Instruction, the supreme principle of the Church’s social doctrine is Jesus’ great commandment of love.  Christian love when applied may take various forms, in accord with the changing circumstances of history.

We now understand that as compassionate disciples of the Lord, the Church exercises a special option for the poor and shows them a loving preference.  The compassion and love of the Church must extend toward the poor of whatever kind – to the infant in danger of being aborted, and particularly to the poverty-stricken Filipino mother denied the basic information about her own reproductive health.

The Primacy of Individual Conscience

 In 1965, Pope Paul 6 issued an encyclical letter entitled Dignitatis Humanae, also known as Declaration on Religious Freedom.  In Section 3, para. 4, he wrote:[15]

Man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience.  In all his activity, a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.   It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.  Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.  (Emphasis added.)

In 1967, the same Pope Paul 6 issued another encyclical entitled Populorum Progressio, also known as On the Development of Peoples.  In Section 37, he wrote:[16]

It is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong.  In all this they must follow the demands of their own conscience enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted, and sustained by confidence in Him.  (Emphasis added.)

In 1993, Pope John Paul 2 issued his encyclical entitled, Veritatis Splendor, also known as The Splendor of Truth.  In Section 64, he wrote:[17]

The authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians.  This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth, but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith.  The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in some difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.  (Emphasis added.)

Against these encyclicals on freedom of conscience, the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul 6, based on a minority report of the papal commission, strikes a discordant note.  It declared as erroneous the principle of totality, under which contraception could be considered morally legitimate, in the context of the totality of a fruitful married life.  Instead, the encyclical declares:[18]

The Church calling human beings back to the observance of the norm of the natural law, as interpreted by constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.

Humanae Vitae by itself has drawn a great divide between Catholics.  It has stirred up a storm, thus:[19]

The negative reaction of many theologians, moralists, and non-moralists alike, was vigorous and widespread.  Bishops’ conferences around the world accepted the encyclical as authoritative teaching.  However, some of these conferences drew attention, for example, to the primacy of conscience, the need to be understanding and forgiving, and the judgment that Catholics who sincerely cannot follow the encyclical’s teaching are not thereby separated from the love of God.  Such themes were sounded by the bishops of Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries.  (Emphasis added.)

My own favorite excerpt from the bishops who supported the primacy of individual conscience comes from the Scandinavian bishops:

No one, including the Church can absolve anyone from the obligation to follow his (or her) conscience. . . . If someone for weighty and well considered reasons cannot become convinced of the argumentation of the encyclical, it has always been conceded that he (or she) is allowed to have a different view from that presented in a non-infallible statement of the Church.  No one should be considered a bad Catholic because he (or she) is of such a dissenting opinion.

Allow me to emphasize this 1971 statement by the U.S. Sacred Congregation for the Clergy over the signature of its cardinal, as follows:[20]

Conscience is inviolable and no person is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his (or her) conscience, as the moral tradition of the Church attests.  Thus, in pastoral practice priests must not be too quick to assume either complete innocence or moral guilt in the persons they counsel.  One must recognize persons who are “honestly trying to lead a good Christian life.”  There must be confidence “in the mercy of God and the forgiving power of Christ.”  (Emphasis added.)

In 1994, a volume called The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought took note of the progress of liberal progressive Catholic thinking by analyzing the major modern encyclicals and reaching the following conclusion:[21]

The Catholic church, in its official pronouncements at least, continues today to affirm that natural family planning and sexual abstinence are the only morally acceptable means of controlling births.

What has become the key issue for Catholic thought in the matter of birth control, therefore, is not the intended ends sought by proponents of artificial birth control, but the morally legitimate means to the admittedly good ends that birth control advocates claim to seek and the human values that will be lost or distorted in using morally illegitimate means.

There seems to be several major concerns behind the continued opposition of Catholic social teaching to the practice of artificial means of birth control, be those means mechanical (condoms, IUDs, diaphragms, cervical caps), chemical (spermicidal agents, the “pill”), or surgical (sterilization, abortion).  Those concerns focus on the dignity of man and woman, the well-being of children and families, and God’s role in the creation of new life.  More cynical or suspicious views of Catholic social teaching would also see a fear and contempt for sex on the part of celibate clerics and a desire by those same celibates to maintain their power in the church and their control over the laity.  Whatever merit such suspicious views may have, they are not necessary to account for the continued opposition of the official teachers of the Roman Catholic church to artificial contraception.

The book, Christ Among Us, which has been described as America’s most popular guide to modern Catholicism, describes the ongoing process of reformulating Catholic doctrine:[22]

In this matter, as in anything, the Church has not spoken the final word, and a development of its teaching is quite possible in the future.  The large majority of theologians agree that no question of infallibility is involved. . . .

Soon after the encyclical, 500 American theologians – in concert with many throughout the world – asserted that for grave reasons Catholics may follow their conscience on this matter even though the Pope has spoken. . . .

The large majority of Catholic couples have been unable to square this teaching with their consciences.  Priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley estimates that nine out of 10 Catholic couples practice contraception at some time during their childbearing years.  These couples may be respectful of the Church’s duty to teach in moral matters, or trying to live good Christian married lives, and are willing to practice self-denial.  They have tried to inform their consciences as best they can, and feel that for serious physical, financial, or psychological reasons they cannot use periodic abstinence.  Their consciences tell them that another child at this time would cause great damage to their married life, and perhaps to the children they already had – and, for some, contraception presents itself as the only alternative to a possible abortion, obviously a far greater evil.

As we have seen, it is a clear teaching that, while erroneous decisions might be made in following one’s conscience, one who has tried to inform one’s conscience as best one can must then follow it.  (Emphasis added.)

If a Catholic disagrees with a moral teaching of the Church, according to an eminent theologian, we must take into account the following principles:[23]

  • If, after proper study, reflection, and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct, in spite of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, the person not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience, rather than the teachings of the Church.
  • The Church has never explicitly claimed to speak infallibly on a moral question.
  • No teaching of the Church can hope to account for every moral situation and circumstance.
  • The teachings themselves are historically conditioned.  What may have been perceived as morally wrong in one set of circumstances would be regarded as morally justifiable in another situation.
  • No individual or groups of individuals can hope to identify and grasp moral truth by relying entirely on our own resources.  We are all finite and sinful.

Let me end this overview on the primacy of conscience doctrine with an excerpt from a 2010 book,[24] which lists four grounds for artificial contraception:

1.  Population explosion is a major issue.  It is irresponsible to encourage large families – especially in the “developing world” (a term often used for the world’s poorest countries, which masks the fact that some nations are growing poorer).

  1.  Responsible stewardship requires adults to plan their families according to their means, their preferences, and their health.

3.  Sexual intimacy within marriage is good in itself; the fact that it need no longer be linked with the possibility of conception is to be welcomed with thanksgiving.

  1.  HIV/AIDS is an immense problem.  Its spread is more likely to be stemmed by widespread use of condoms than by unrealistic calls for sexual abstinence.

I most humbly join the observation that today, 2011, even within the Catholic church, private judgment is widespread on the use of artificial contraception.  It is said that Italy has a very low birth rate, even though some 80% of the population claim to be Catholic.  The Italian example is one illustration that one strand of Christian ethics acknowledges the supremacy of the individual Christian conscience, even over official Church teaching.

 The Lesson From the Catholic Past

 Today, the scientific community and society in general consider that science and religion are fully independent of each other.  I am one of the optimistic Catholics who do not subscribe to the so-called conflict thesis.  I do not believe that there in an intrinsic intellectual conflict between the Church and science.  But I am acutely aware that history gives us many examples of the conflict thesis and how wrong the Church was.

One example was the case of Copernicus, who was denounced by the Church in the sixteenth century for publishing a new cosmology.  Copernicus announced that the sun occupied the central place in the universe, and that the earth moves around the sun.  He was made to suffer for his conviction.

Another example was the case of Galileo, who was similarly denounced by the Church in the seventeenth century.  Galileo supported the heliocentric view of the universe.  Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty of heresy, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.  However, after a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, in 1992 Pope John Paul 2 acknowledged that the Church had been wrong.

Still another example was the case of the theory of evolution, which had to struggle against misguided opposition.  Like the theories of Copernicus and Galileo, the theory of evolution is now accepted by the Catholic Church.  The official position now is that faith and scientific findings regarding human evolution are not in conflict.

To conclude this part of my speech on the RH Act, allow me to use the language of liberation theology.  The Word of God is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed Filipinos.  Faith is the historical praxis of liberation.  Faith must always be directed toward the changing of the existing social order.  We have to participate in the struggle of the poor and the oppressed Filipino mother and child.

Let us adopt the project of theological feminism, by searching the tradition for what has contributed to female subjugation.  Uncontrolled pregnancies is certainly one of them.  Jesus himself was radically open to woman.  Jesus was a revolutionary who accepted women as equal, and rejected any use of God to perpetuate patriarchal or hierarchical relationships.

As legislators and law-abiding citizens of our republic, we are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause from enforcing anti-female prejudice.  The RH Act seeks to correct the fallacy of intrinsic female inferiority.  Fathers of the Church like St. Augustine saw woman as dominated by the body, in comparison with man, who stood for the predominance of the spirit.  We have since discarded that archaic view.

Upon his resurrection, Jesus appeared first to women, thus sending a message.  It was, and still is, the message of responsible love.

-o0o-

Part 2 and 3 of the sponsorship speech can be found here. 

 


[1]   Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church rev. ed. 2004 at 409.

[2]   Id. at 410.

[3]   Id. at 412.

[4]  Id. at 414.

[5]   Id. at 401.

[6]   Id. at 421.

[7]   Richard McBrien, Catholicism, 3d ed. 1994 at 986 et seq.

[8]   Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Note 51.

 

[9]  Bokenkotter at 418.

[10]  Netherlands Bishops, A New Catechism (1970), at 403.

[11]   Roderick Strange, The Catholic Faith (1986), at 145.

[12]  McBrien at 982.

[13]   Bokenkotter at 453.

[14]   Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (1972) at 261.

[15]  Pope Paul 6, Dignitatis Humanae Section 3.

[16]   Pope Paul 6, Populorum Progressio Section 37.

[17]   Pope John Paul, Veritatis Splendor Section 64 para 2.

[18]   Pope Paul 6, Humanae Vitae Section 11.

[19]   McBrien at 990-991.

[20]   Id., at 991.

[21]   Judith Dwyer, ed., The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (1994), at 85.

[22]   Anthony Wilhelm, Christ Among Us, A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith For Adults, 6th rev. ed. 1996 at 402.

[23]   McBrien at 973-74.

[24]   John Young, Christianity – An Introduction, 5t ed. (2010) at 273.

22 comments on “THE REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH ACT, Part 1: Primacy of Conscience in Catholic Theology

  1. In my opinion, as a religious body or organization, they should not influence or meddle with the decision of the state.

    Most importantly if their claims are invalid.

    Such as biblical arguments that do not really apply to the courts of law.

    Let’s not allow the Catholic church to continuously violate the Philippine constitution even further.

    Let’s not cover them up for their wrong actions and feel ashamed in the face of your religious leaders just because you think you’re strong in faith. That SUV-Bishop scandal, madam?

    To be honest, I was appalled by how you and your colleagues treated this case and the bishops with more of an apologetic attitude rather than the unbiased face of justice and fair system.

    If this is how things are being dealt with in our government —or IN OUR COUNTRY in a larger sense, then it saddens us, Filipinos, but we cannot trust our leaders in handling such affairs or any other affair.

    I am not saying that I am better than you or anyone in position.

    All I’m saying is that, Madam, WE ARE AWARE OF WHAT’S HAPPENING.

    We just want you to also become aware and fight this ignorance and bigotry within our system.

    PS: I commend you for this wonderful post.
    Although I am an atheist, I can see your stand in this argument clearly.
    I will support you in taking further steps concerning the RH bill issue.

  2. I congratulate Sen. Miriam for the following powerful message: “Let us adopt the project of theological feminism, by searching the tradition for what has contributed to female subjugation. Uncontrolled pregnancies is certainly one of them. Jesus himself was radically open to woman. Jesus was a revolutionary who accepted women as equal, and rejected any use of God to perpetuate patriarchal or hierarchical relationships.

    As legislators and law-abiding citizens of our republic, we are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause from enforcing anti-female prejudice. The RH Act seeks to correct the fallacy of intrinsic female inferiority. Fathers of the Church like St. Augustine saw woman as dominated by the body, in comparison with man, who stood for the predominance of the spirit. We have since discarded that archaic view.”

    WOW! so Well said!

  3. Madam Senator, you got it right. Its all about our conscience. However, i think you are on the wrong side of the fence. If it is up to our conscience then why do you have to legislate? Why dont we just let live it up to our conscience regardless of who is telling us whether it is the church or the United States.

  4. There are crucial points in this text (historical, doctrinal, moral and theological) that have unfortunately not been very carefully considered and interpreted. The present Rh bill is drawing moral objections from the Church because there are grave moral concerns like contraception. I don’t quite agree that Church’s opposition to Rh bill is just solely based on the Humanae Vitae or just because the Pope, who is claimed to have erred on the teaching, said it so. This is a hasty and inconclusive interpretation of how Catholic Theology evolved through history.
    There are lots of information that were not considered and that were left out, thereby making some of the information in the text partial and insufficient view of Catholic Theology in general. Humanae Vitae condemns contraceptive mentality, not because of authority, but because of the moral-philosophical and theological grounds. Theologians are philosophers, too.
    I think we fell a bit short of sight on the topic, and we attempt to enter a sphere not of our own competence and we not so knowledgeable about. Some historical data are historically inaccurate and questionable.

    The question on my background is quite irrelevant. I admire Senator Miriam, too, and I know she is a very good, knowledgeable and bold person. However, the issue here is not about her academic background or achievements, not quite so about my background either. To count such elements as the absolute determiner the argument’s accuracy and truth or not is obviously fallacious. It is poisoning-the-well fallacy. I know the facts about Miriam’s academic achievements as well. The thing is that we should never let ourselves be blinded by such glowing academic achievements and distinctions given by the schools or universities. In judging the validity/truth or the invalidity or untruth of an argument, one should criticize the nature and the premises of the argument and not the personal background of the person who is arguing.
    Someone belonging to the other camp was questioning my academic background. Nonetheless, this information is irrelevant to the discussion. Again, we cannot just preclude the discussion by attacking the credibility of the opponent. Doing so is quite irrelevant. Regardless of her academic distinction and background, the lady senator commits fallacy of presumption and fallacy of begging the question in her speech. However, this does not mean that her argument is absolutely false. This only means that we have to re-check and review the historical facts so we know what actually happened historically. Even the interpretation of the subject on human conscience is questionable here, because the primacy of conscience does not mean precisely that the church will tolerate the erroneous tendencies human consciences. We should not allow ourselves to form an erroneous conscience. The church has to help in correcting them faithfully according to Christ’s teachings. The lady senator, in fact, raised a significant point: that we should follow our consciences. It is right that we follow our consciences, but not all consciences are properly formed. Some are erroneous which need to be corrected in a charitable manner. This is what the church is tasked to do. Moreover, consciences may easily be confused with a capricious form of human ego. That is why we have to be very careful. And we have to question the so-claimed “conscience.”
    But point raised is questionable as far as accurate historical information about the Christianity’s moral, theological and philosophical truths is concerned. Before we begin arguing, we should properly know first the accuracy of the facts/information we intend to use in the premises of our argument and the limitations of our competence. For those who are in political positions, let us be fair, just, and careful in interpreting and dealing with historic facts, because we cannot know the truth unless we know the facts first. Facts and truth are not exactly identical in nature so we cannot interchange them indiscriminately. Again, politics is a different science from theology, morality, and philosophy, though they are not absolutely/totally different from each other. All of these sciences are closely interconnected and they profoundly overlap and influence each other.

  5. well said ma’am, the bible is silent about using contraceptive. i believe that the bible should be the final authority. using contraceptives does not mean you are committing murder because there is no life yet, only if there is union of egg cell and sperm cell that we can say life begins. so i can say RH bill education could help us renew our mind not to be condemn but make life easier to live on.

  6. Eating babies will solve overpopulation and world hunger at the same time. Or we could just settle for a more humane option: Pass the RH Bill!

  7. You might enjoy this:http://primacyofreason.blogspot.com/2011/08/initial-critique-of-senator-santiagos.html

    1. The speech rests its arguments on the “authority” of specific theologians and historians. The words of these few teachers are used to critique the Catholic Church and its hierarchy.

    a. Here is a short backgrounder on some of these teachers:

    — McBrien: his book quoted by Sen. Santiago was called “inaccurate” and “misleading” by the U.S. National Council of Catholic Bishops. Also: “The problem is that this [book’s] embrace of modernity is so enthusiastic as to imply a certain naive denigration of premodern thought.”[1]
    — Bokentotter: his book was reviewed and said to be “tendentious Modernist ideology masquerading as history” by Professor Toner.[2]

    — Wilhelm: his book was called a “theological deception” in Catholic Culture. [3]

    — Dwyer: A chapter in this book was critiqued as having “strong roots in a Marxist sociology of knowledge.” [4]

    b. Modernism and Marxism form part of the doctrinal confusion and the flight from truth that characterized what is now called the Post-Vatican Crisis, a period of misinterpreting the actual documents of the Vatican II. The Church has also taught that in some aspects of liberation theology, there are “deviations… damaging to the faith.”[5]

    2. On the poor and Liberation Theology. One of the latest notifications of the Vatican to a liberation theologian stated that it issued the document as a service “to the people of God, and particularly to the simple and poorest members of the Church.” They emphasized the people’s “right to know the truth…about Christ,” and therefore their corresponding duty to intervene. The notification was premised on Benedict XVI’s teaching that “the first poverty among people is not to know Christ.”

    The Catholic Church it should be noted is one of the largest –if not the largest– pro-poor organizations in the world.

    http://primacyofreason.blogspot.com/2011/08/initial-critique-of-senator-santiagos.html

  8. The progressivist-conservativist antinomy IS SO OLD that it is no longer true today. What the church teaches is Jesus’ doctrine and Jesus’ words still hold TODAY. Life is a gift from God and no human legislation can change that. What is true is TRUE not because the Church teaches it. The Church teaches it because it is the true. One cannot argue in favor of the RH bill by mentioning the progressivist-conservativist antinomy.

  9. Few realize that up until 1930, all Protestant denominations agreed with the Catholic Church’s teaching condemning contraception as sinful. Today, the Catholic Church alone proclaims the historic Christian position on contraception.

    Pope Paul VI predicted grave consequences that would arise from the widespread and unrestrained use of contraception. He warned, “Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificially limiting the increase of children. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men—especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point—have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion” (HV 17).

    No one can doubt the fulfillment of these prophetic words. They have all been more than fulfilled in many countries as a result of the widespread availability of contraceptives, the “free love” movement that started in the 1960s, and the loose sexual morality that it spawned and that continues to pervade Western culture.

    Indeed, recent studies reveal a far greater divorce rate in marriages in which contraception is regularly practiced than in those marriages where it is not. Experience, natural law, Scripture, Tradition, and the Church magisterium, all testify to the moral evil of contraception.

    Ignoring the mountain of evidence, some maintain that the Church considers the use of contraception a matter for each married couple to decide according to their “individual conscience.” Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of contraception are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching cannot be changed and has been taught by the Church infallibly.

    There is no way to deny the fact that the Church has always and everywhere condemned artificial contraception. The matter has already been infallibly decided. The so-called “individual conscience” argument amounts to “individual disobedience.” Source: Catholic Answers

  10. Dear Senator,
    Brava!
    Please accept my congratulations for your well grounded and, being a professed Catholic yourself, valiant speech in support of conscience with respect to the topic of contraception. You’ve well documented the error of the Philippine hierarchy’s insistence on absolutism of every Papal pronouncement, and the grave error of Pope Paul VI in contradicting the majority opinion of Vatican II.
    I agree with you on the primacy of one’s conscience. I disagree with many posters on Catholic church doors and walls that RH is against God’s will (how dare they speak for God?). And am with your saying the RH question involves social justice for our poor families

  11. Kudos! Wonderful… educational..

    @ Melissa Ledesma: there’s something wrong with your syllogism. Understand Sen. Santiago’s argument first before coming up with that conclusion. ^^ .. peace out.

  12. Right on Sen Miriam,

    Let the bill see the light of day. At the end of this debate, one principle should remain: Political Rights. It is a right of an individual to choose what method she is comfortable with. Any organization, even religion, should not trample that.

    If the Catholic church wins this case, then we should really call them the third legislative body of the Philippines.

  13. You’re asking the good senator that “If it is up to our conscience then why do you have to legislate? Why dont we just let live it up to our conscience regardless of who is telling us whether it is the church or the United States”… Obviously some are ignorant about this issue, there is a need to legislate this because there is no law in force that covers family planning that has a wider purview. Furthermore, If this is bill becomes a law the legislature can appropriate the necessary budget to enforce this law so that not only the wealthy can avail of the family planning given by this law but also the poor, who, in contemplation of this law, are the ones benefited. And don’t bring the Bishop-scandal argument here. Sen. Defensor-Santiago already gave her stand on that issue, That it was not unconstitutional, and indeed it is not! so let us not mix the RH bill issue and the bishop-scandal issue because the two are way, way different.

  14. @Aling Dionisia… Baket? ang pagbubuntis ba ang tinutukoy ni Sen. Miriam na inferior? certainly NOT. If you read her previous speech on the RH bill, Madam Miriam is asking that the women be given the choice to use family planning (whether natural or artificial). Ang “inferiority” na tinutukoy ni Sen. Miriam ay ang paggamit sa pangalan ng Diyos para di mabigyan ng choice ang kababaihan.

  15. I always believe in Sen. Santiago’s views. I also believe that our country, the Philippines is now a better country to live in if she have been President in 1992. Too bad she was cheated.
    We live in Pangasinan but my parents voted for her so as a lot of people here. Let the bill see the light. Too long have been the Catholic Church been indulging in the Legislative affairs, let them know where their boundaries are. As Filipinos, we should support this bill. Very Important. Urgent.

  16. Madam Senator,

    I just would like to tell you that you have been biased when you said that the fatwah “Call to Greatness”, issued by the Assembly of Darul Iftah of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ADI-ARMM) in December 2003, gives Muslim couples a free choice on whether to practice family planning, particularly child spacing. Whereas this is true, this is NOT JUST what the ulama from Central Mindanao said.

    You failed to mention, madam Senator, that the 2003 fatwa, as told by Ustadhz Esmail “Mike” Ebrahim, spokesman of the Islamic group, last October 2010 to the Manila Bulletin, also flatly rejects abortion and BIRTH CONTROL as part of family planning. The RH bill’s proposed birth control pills are definitely not acceptable to Islam.

  17. all throughout the speech, i had a lot of nods! We fervently hope that this would indeed be passed!

  18. Senator and to all her supporters, whom i call myself one, i hope you’d read this carefully. I tweeted to you last week. I hope you’ve read it . As a woman, a catholic christian and an economics student,i hope you would give time to my message.
    Sen. Miriam, as i have hoped you have studied conscience in a course you took up (theology) maybe you have forgotten what of which we call “super-ego”. We may have always mistaken it for our conscience. Sometimes we forgot things, unimportant things, but senator, you have many people listen to your every word as i would have hoped you’ve studied the course better. what you’ve taken up, in your speech was the super-ego not the conscience. because the conscience is always based on a law. the super-ego is based on the self, the upbringing of the person. I hope you’d correct that part ma’am. senmiriam, i am a big supporter of yours an admirer rather but when you’ve supported this bill, i was in deep doubt of what side you were. I am also sad at how you’re other supporters do not understand what this bill truly is. Why can’t people see what’s hiding behind the kind words of this bill, especially you. the Catholic Church, the muslim community have not yet supported this bill ma’am, correction. also this is a moral issue, please do not set aside the authority of the Church when it comes to the Morality and Values of the Filipino People.Some may not be unaware of the amount of money that will be spent on the bill for condoms and contraceptives which are in the first place free in public hospitals and clinics, although for married couples alone. also, it has been proven that most women suffered more when they used contraceptives, some have died. it is not at all safe. furthermore, why can’t we focus on much more substantial things like giving attention to filipino entrepreneurs and inventions. Why can’t the government focus on the real development. we keep on doing the same economic development plan (MTDP) and we always get the same result. why can’t we stop the politics and do what’s economically helpful for our country. Singapore did not use an RH bill, China evidently did not use something like the Rh bill. Australia used something an RH bill similar to us, and what happened to them? Demographic winter. I hope you would be enlightened or atleast have that doubt with your convictions. i’m not saying their wrong, their just not what our country need right now.

    thank you Senator.

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