Journalism as barbarism

The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

A matter of conscience

The following article was originally published in the November 10, 2009 edition of Noy News, the official newsletter of Noynoy Aquino. A related entry in this blog is “The right to dissent“.

Certain representatives of the Catholic Church, a staunch and powerful opponent of the reproductive health (RH) bill, have gone as far as threatening those in favor of the controversial piece of legislation with excommunication. A somewhat less extreme reaction has been to imply or to state outright that any supporter of the RH bill would do well to leave the Church. For example, Rev. Fr. Robert S. Embile, JCL, in a letter published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 20, 2009, said that, “Any believer who does not abide with the teachings 100 percent is not a genuine Catholic.” This perhaps stems from the belief—an erroneous one, in light of the actual provisions contained therein—that the RH bill legalizes abortion. (Read about it.)

Despite the difference in degree from excommunication, such a pronouncement is animated by the same impulse of exclusion from the community of the faithful, as though the position of the Church on reproductive health were so absolute and so unambiguous as to leave no room for healthy, critical discussion, much less disagreement. This is certainly not the case for “artificial” contraception.

The condemnation of “artificial” birth control is enshrined in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, and what seems to be its most significant argument is that “artificial” birth control methods seek to separate the unitive and the procreative functions of sexual intercourse—functions that God made inseparable. Though “based on natural law”, and in line with what has been “constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church”, such a formulation ultimately begs the moral question, saying little more than this: artificial contraception is morally wrong because what it does is, and has always been, bad. It is a circular argument: it presupposes what it seeks to establish. In other words, the conclusion that artificial contraception is bad, is supported by the same premise: that artificial contraception is bad.

Even the assertion itself that artificial contraception is inherently wrong is also difficult to sustain, as will be shown below.

What the Church teaches

(1) According to Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, marriage is ordained not only toward the begetting of children, but also toward their education.

Furthermore, marriage is a sacred, unbreakable bond, through which love between two persons is more greatly enriched, strengthened, and perfected, leading the spouses closer to God. Marriage thus maintains its value as a way of life, regardless of offspring. Procreation is neither the sole nor the primary purpose of matrimony—the Church recognizes its importance, but does not make the other purposes of less account.

(2) The apostle Paul told husband and wife to fulfill their marital duties to each other: “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5).

Gaudium et Spes, following Paul, contains this warning: “But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.” Hence, the Church believes that regular intercourse is necessary and desirable for a married couple.

(3) Although the Church has a long and well-established wealth of teachings, only those that have to do with divine revelation are considered infallible. Humanae Vitae, as previously mentioned, derives its force from natural law. In addition, the Church encourages its faithful to interact with others of their time in order to share resources, to understand different points of view, and to better harmonize theological principles with secular knowledge.

Again, to quote Gaudium et Spes:

Let them blend new sciences and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology.

Catholics are exhorted not to shy away from the world and mindlessly cleave to tradition, but to take an active part in the shaping of history in cooperation with others.

What’s a good Catholic to do?

By now a gap, if not a conflict, should be apparent between Humanae Vitae and the other texts mentioned above. That none can be said to be more manifestly authoritative than the others—at least from a lay perspective—compounds the situation. How, then, should a good Catholic act? St. Thomas of Aquinas would counsel prudence, the function of which, based on Summa Theologica, consists of the following: to learn the facts, take advice, and understand the issues involved; to judge carefully what one has found; and to act out of reason so as to ensure good and avoid evil.

It is not inconceivable that “right reason applied to action” can result in dissent from the official position of the Church, which all Catholics are free to do with reference to non-infallible teachings. If, after careful study, after the scrupulous testing of convictions and values, one cannot accept the ban on “artificial” contraception with a clear conscience, then one must heed whatever his or her conscience does dictate—an act that would be genuinely Catholic.

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.