Redrawing the circle

To entrench oneself in a position diametrically opposite to that occupied by a ideological adversary may well be a significant demonstration of whatever convictions one holds dear. That said, the problem with such a move, however ferociously or passionately undertaken, should be obvious enough: it merely reinforces the area and the circumference of the already existing discursive circle. Moreover, antipodal antagonism confirms, if not intensifies, in the foe the power that one is trying to deny it.

Thus, no matter how many individual skirmishes or battles one claims as triumphs, the war itself cannot be won—the terms of the conflict only ensure the maintenance of the status quo, which is to say endless and unproductive enmity, rather than victory, which is to say any hoped-for change: the expansion or contraction of the circle, or its transformation into a different, more feasible shape.

Within such a scheme of struggle, the question of strategic value is often elided or ignored, because the effect and defect of committing to diametrical distance, to absolute opposition, is the reduction of one’s vision—if vision it can indeed be called—to a narrow set of premises, which in turn lead to action that is limited in scope and efficacy. It should be unsurprising that agitators of this stripe tend toward maneuvers that are predicated less on dignity, respect, or logic than on puerility, sanctimoniousness, or auto-eroticism.

One such agitator is Carlos Celdran, a tour guide and an advocate for the immediate passage of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill—a bill that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is strongly against.

Let us call a spade a spade: Celdran’s recent disruption of an ongoing mass at the Manila Cathedral by holding up a placard emblazoned with “Damaso”, yelling at the assembled bishops, and—according to a report from The Philippine Star—later goading police officers on the scene to arrest him is an act not of subversion in the vein of José Rizal, regardless of Celdran’s attire—or utterly destitute notions of Rizal and heroism—but of perversion.

If with his gimmick Celdran had intended to catch the spotlight of national attention, he has certainly succeeded brilliantly. But now that he has drawn our collective notice, I have to ask: So what? Or, perhaps more crucially: Now what?

Perversion, admittedly, has a long and honorable tradition of being deployed in the name of critical commentary. For example, Diogenes of Sinope, perhaps the most famous of the Cynics, deliberately behaved like a dog in order to foreground the falsehoods of civilization and uphold the virtues of asceticism. To my mind, though, Celdran’s publicity stunt partakes of the same kind of perversion that motivates a child to sneak cookies before dinner, draw on the walls with crayons, or grab the shiny new toys of another: for the primitive pleasure of being able to do something that is conventionally forbidden.

Insofar as Celdran can be described as a cynic, it is in the modern sense of word, because if the manner in which he chose to make his protest is any indication, he seems to believe the only way to forward his cause is to sensationalize it, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to frame a complex matter in the crudest and most simplistic of ways: by stoking the fires of generic underdog rage. Perhaps the bishops did need “to hear what the Filipinos are saying“, but Celdran’s objective did not appear to be so much clarity as it was blasphemy.

Whatever Celdran thought he was doing—in his own words, he wanted to give the bishops “a dose of their own [medicine]“—I have serious doubts that his stunt has helped matters any, chiefly because he and like-minded ilk missed a very important point: engaging the CBCP on the RH bill is an exercise in futility, because, as an institution of the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot and should not be expected to take a stand that runs counter to official Church teachings or defies the Holy See. For better or for worse, the Church accepts as axiomatic that artificial contraception is evil, and the actions of the CBCP with reference to the RH bill proceed from that same premise. Given this, it must be understood that there is no room for negotiation at all.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly evident that what the CBCP thinks, says, or does as a body clearly does not have much of an impact on the general populace, considering that several surveys have already shown that a majority of Filipinos—including Catholics—favor the passage of the RH bill. Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Catholic doctrine allows for the possibility of dissent if that is what one’s conscience dictates. Going head-to-head with the bishops, therefore, is myopic and wasteful, even gratuitous: one might as well bash one’s head repeatedly against a wall for all the good that arguing with the CBCP will do, even if cracking one’s skull open is “gutsy” and “bad-ass”—oh, and, of course, thoroughly mediagenic.

In the realm of public opinion, church and state are already separate, so why bother to fight the CBCP and accord it more power, more influence, and more exposure than it ought to have, entitled though it may be to a voice in the peanut gallery of our rowdy democracy? Enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the freedom to ignore. The battle for the passage of the RH bill, at this particular juncture at least, is not with the bishops, but with the nominally honorable members of Congress. As blogger iwriteasiwrite has suggested, dialogue with the Catholic Church can—and should—resume after the bill has been passed into law.

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The right to dissent

That Cebu archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal would presume to tell his flock not to vote for Senator Noynoy Aquino or other politicians who support the reproductive health (RH) bill, and that Father Melvin Castro of the Commission of Family and Life would propose bloc voting against allegedly anti-life candidates, are not merely disturbing developments for Roman Catholics such as myself. These are also contradictory to what canonists and theologians have commonly held: that it is licit and moral for a member of the Church, whether of the clergy or the laity, to disagree with an official teaching should the teaching run counter to his or her tested objective reasoning. If, after thorough study and reflection, a Catholic cannot hew to the teaching with a clear and honest conscience, then he or she can—and should—dissent without fear of being hypocritical or disloyal to the Church.

While the Church may be against all forms of artificial contraception as set forth in Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, the encyclical is by no means infallible. Papal infallibility has to do exclusively with teachings on divine revelation—that is, what Jesus Christ taught his followers to believe and to do. It does not extend to the realms of natural science and human wisdom, as even the most rapid survey of Church history would indicate: past popes have authorized the torture of alleged heretics (Innocent IV), upheld the Ptolemaic theory of geocentrism (Urban VIII), condemned freedom of religion and the separation of church and state (Pius IX), and claimed that the proper place of a woman is the home (Pius XI). The Code of Canon Law itself proclaims, “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”

In view of the foregoing, it is only the position of Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Archbishop Angel N. Lagdameo that can be said to be correct: “The Church is not in favor of bloc voting like what others do because our citizens should have the freedom to choose their candidates according to their conscience.” In the matters of the RH bill and of the elections, the Church cannot impose its will upon its followers. Rather, the task before it is to ensure that each Catholic is sufficiently informed about the issues at stake in order for him or her to make the best possible decision, according to his or her conscience. That its leaders would prefer to take the path of least resistance by engaging in sweeping, uncritical condemnation and baseless paranoia-mongering—not to mention singling out Aquino, which {caffeine_sparks} has rightfully deplored—constitute a dereliction of moral duty.

Precisely because the final hurdle for any Catholic is his or her individual conscience, it furthermore behooves the Church to be fully transparent about its own official stance and the circumstances that gave rise to it, instead of simpl(isticall)y arguing against the RH bill. And yet where is the cleric who will say that, prior to the issuance of Humanae Vitae, a majority of the papal birth control commission actually supported contraception? That, upon issuance, the encyclical was widely unpopular, sparking the publication of a dissenting statement signed by over 600 U.S. theologians, and the release of the Winnipeg Statement by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops? That the encyclical fails to cite or contemplate the thoughts of Paul on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, or similarly relevant assertions by the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes? That, specific considerations of Humanae Vitae aside, the clergy is thoroughly ignorant about the realities of married life, and therefore should temper its judgments in that area with prudence, compassion, and, most importantly, modesty? As the National Catholic Reporter pointed out in 1997:

The Vatican’s unmarried males who are the final-word authorities on sexual activity not only have a lopsided view of the subject; they have no experience of an intimacy that is wholesome, bonding, forgiving, sharing, romantic, mutual. There is no sign of joy. A batch of married Vatican officials would indeed be surprised by joy. They would soon discover what normal Catholic couples discover: that sexual activity is one essential component of the lasting joy that marriage brings.

This is not to say that the Church should be neutral or silent on the RH bill. It obviously has a responsibility to educate Catholics on its official stand. It ought to recognize, however, that it cannot and should not deprive the faithful of their responsibility to and for themselves and their families—that it cannot and should not deprive the faithful of the right to dissent when their consciences so dictate.