The past weeks of final examinations seem to have overexcited my neurons and had pushed me to be especially fertile and productive in the literal sense. The analysis offered by Armando Doronila in the Philippine Daily Inquirer ("The RH Bill Debacle", December 20, 2012 issue) has piqued my curiosity and has set my thinking gears turning. It’s strange to note that precisely in a time when everything seems to settle down for a well-earned respite from intellectual work after the exams, the brain starts to function.
The Doronila’s article provides an analysis concerning the outcome of the recent debate on the Reproductive Health (or otherwise, Responsible Parenthood) bill, which I think would be remembered in Philippine contemporary history as one of the most divisive in society. Centering on the clash between the Catholic Church and the bill’s proponents in the legislature, not only does it recount the facts about the final stages of the debate, but in order to reinforce the author’s point concerning the ideological conflict between both, Doronila goes back in history, and points out the actuation of both parties in the debate concerning the legislation allowing for the compulsory reading of Rizal’s Noli and Fili in Philippine schools way back in the late 1950’s. In this debate, the Church (vehement against its application in the Philippine educational system) lost the debate, and the novels became part of the school curriculum. But as Sen. Joker Arroyo mentioned in his intervention during the Senate voting on the RH bill, in this 1956 debate, nobody lost face, neither the Church nor the politicians who sponsored the bill.
Doronila also mentions another episode in which the Church took a crucial part, and this was in ousting Marcos from power, effectively ending a twenty-year old regime. Here, the memorable role of the late Cardinal Sin was crucial in calling all Filipinos to the streets, a decision which was not done in the spur of the moment, but something that was taken after intense hours of prayer. Referring to this episode, the author of the article concludes that “in this role, Church intervention in state affairs was at its best and most welcomed by the Filipino people. It was the height of the influence and power of the Church in the development of democracy”.
He goes on, winding up a rather insightful analysis, commenting on the fact that since then, the Church’s influence has waned, and could not be regained by interventions related to population and its implications related to economic growth and poverty.
Doronila begins with what amounts to a general assumption: “the Roman Catholic Church suffered its most crushing defeat in its collision with the Philippine state in 13 years when Congress decisively voted on Monday to pass the Malacañang-certified reproductive health bill providing government funding for contraceptives and sex education in schools.” I would say that this could be taken as an apparent assumption, and this could be interpreted in many ways, depending on the perspective from which one may prefer to look at it.
Basically this was one statement that set me thinking. Certainly the votes of the anti-Rh legislators, backed by the bishops and the Catholic laity, were outnumbered by a comfortable margin by the pro-RH camp and the bill’s authors. Tactically, numerically and apparently, the outcome transformed the parties in the debate, turning it from a debate between pros and antis into one between the gleefully victorious and the defeated.
The day the results were officially made known to the public, placing the bill one step ahead into legality, many people expressed their dismay and their sadness on the outcome. Both news reached me as I surveyed the world in the internet. I guess the latter’s expressions of sadness and dismay personally irritated me more than the victory of the Pro-RH camp in the bicameral vocations, though their reaction is perfectly understandable. The day the results went out, I didn’t have that sense of defeat, personally because it don’t see it as such. To express it more exactly, the legislators contrary to the bill lost in the votation; they may have been on the same side that the Catholic Church was championing, but it was the anti-RH votes that lost (as a parenthesis, I congratulate these legislators for being heroic in standing their ground, as much as I respect the rest of the other legislators in the other camp).
I don’t feel that there should be talk of the Catholic Church being defeated as yet, for the simple reason that the law still has to prove itself capable of bringing what it was supposed to bring on. It’s too premature to celebrate. I would grant victory to the supporters of the RH bill as a law if it has indeed been able to make true its provisions, and has uplifted the poor, helped in defending the rights of women, and aided in the true education of the youth. But the mere fact of it’s being passed into law is no guarantee that it will work. I’m not saying that it won’t work, it could be effective…but as the Holy Writ would express it, it would only be through the fruits that we would be able to see the true victory of this bill once enacted into law, and this will not happen at the spur of the moment.
I don’t think the Church has suffered a crushing defeat; a setback in its hold and influence (as the Inquirer would put it) perhaps, but a humiliated Church, I don’t think so. In the academic jests that we would throw at each other in the residence where I live in, we would debate upon the excellence of our fields: Canon lawyers would pit themselves jokingly against dogmatic theologians, moralists against philosophers, each saying their field is better and the studying the rest is an absolute waste of time. One day they turned to me, the only historian in the residence (there aren’t much of us in the Faculty of Theology, there are only about six of us, and I’m the lone Filipino) and asked me in jest concerning any importance my field would have. I replied smugly, “I don’t need to answer that question. I just have to direct you to the fact that chapter one in all of your respective textbooks would talk about the history of your specializations. Go and deduce the answer for yourselves. We historians cannot enter into your debates; transcending such conflicts, we have the duty to be observers of everything that takes place in time and space”. Message relayed ad verbatim. I suppose I felt smug like Buddha or some other oriental sage, because my companions backed a hasty retreat and went for another to pounce on.
There is a lot to be learned in history, and in a way, it gives you a perspective that helps orient things, and it is only when things are in place could one be at peace. The outcome of the RH bill debate, its impact on the Church and upon its public image in Philippine society, and the analysis afforded by Doronila brings be back to the case of the Protestant Reformation. The Reform wrought by Luther had huge consequences in European history. It was a tragic episode with respect to the history of European unity, as with the Reform movement, that millenary political, cultural and religious unity termed as Christendom was irreparable shattered. The revolution instigated by Luther’s defiance to authority, no matter how corrupt, started a long period of wars, which culminated in the rise of modern states, each with its own handling of religion. Far from being a principle of unity, it shattered it.
For the Church, the Reform brought heavy consequences. It was a huge blow, and perhaps historically, it was the greatest crisis that the Catholic Church had ever faced since the Great Schism in the fifteenth century, since it constituted a scandalously huge rift within the Church itself, that mystical body termed by saints and Christian thinkers as that “seamless robe of Christ”, which the Protestant Reform had torn apart.
The Catholic Church was down, evidently…but that painful episode brought immediately brought forth one of the greatest moments of splendor that the Church has ever had in terms of art, intellectual science, administration, and most important of all, sanctity. The succeeding period brought forth a rich harvest of examples of lives that mirrored the holiness and the love of God. above everything, this is the victory that crowns them all. The seventeenth century, heir of the woes of it turbulent predecessor, was a moment of unparalleled glory in many aspects of the Church’s life.
I don’t feel defeated in any way, nor do I think that the Church in the Philippines should feel otherwise…aside from the reasons that I’ve expressed above, whatever low moments we may find ourselves in, the Church must always see as opportunities to rise. To feel sad at an apparent setback is an error which the Catholic Church in the Philippines does not have the luxury to commit at this point in time. Her critics and detractors are right when they say that this marks a new period for the Church, and they are equally right when they say that it is time for a humbler Church.
I think that it is time for the Church in the Philippines to let go of any triumphalist tendency that it may have inherited from its colonial past. It is a triumphalism that we have inherited from the times when bishops and priests, religious and wealthy lay people WERE the Church. This triumphalism has given birth to a certain clericalism that does not speak true of the Gospel of Christ in contemporary Filipino society. True, the people don’t listen anymore to bishops and priests pontificating in their pulpits. But they cannot resist in listening to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. People have that erroneous image of the Church as being merely the bishops and the priests and religious. No, they are not the Church. The lay people in themselves aren’t the Church either. We may sometimes have forgotten that the Church is neither of these. The deepest truth about the Church is that it is the mystical Body of Christ; not just any mere human institution with its own aims and history. Many people wouldn't care to realize that The Church is of God, Christ is its head, and only if we let this word of Christ shine more brilliantly in the foreground, with us priests and bishops and lay people forming the mere background, wouldn’t the people listen more?
The RH Bill debates have merely set, with respect for the Church, the fertile ground upon which to grow stronger, by allowing it to see that its force is not in the numbers that it muster, but in the Truth that it needs to proclaim. For it to proclaim it as such, it needs to humble. Yes, humble, but not humiliated, as the Church’s detractors would have her. A humble Church in the Philippines will speak out all the more, forcefully than ever. A Church that does not base her power in a system of privilege, but on the Gospel of Life, a Church that is prophetic in its denunciation of evil, and active in works of charity in truth, both of which are the only driving force behind any initiative that can truly uplift the Filipino, especially the poor, the women, and the youth.
This is the Church that we are called to be with the help of God’s grace, one which our country needs. And I believe optimistically, that the odds are helping us in achieving that.
Perhaps now you may understand why I don’t think of it as a defeat.