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.

The moral bankruptcy of the COMELEC

In an eight-page resolution dated November 11, 2009, the Second Division of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), composed of commissioners Nicodemeo T. Ferrer, Lucenito N. Tagle, and Elias R. Yusoph, dismissed the petition of Ang Ladlad LGBT Party to be accredited under the party-list system of represention. The dismissal was based on the following: that Ang Ladlad, in seeking to represent the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, advocated sexual immortality, which is offensive to Christian and Muslim beliefs, and violative of Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines; that, therefore, the organization had been untruthful when in stating that neither it nor any of its nominees had failed to comply with any laws, rules, or regulations relating to the elections; and that, finally, the state is duty-bound to protect the youth from moral and spiritual degradation, as provided for in Article II, Section 13 of the 1987 Constitution, and granting the petition would mean exposing young people to an environment that does not conform “to the teachings of our faith” [emphasis added]. (Sass Rogando Sasot of Rainbow Bloggers adapts this letter to fit the current situation and shows how absurd such teachings, which in any case do not bind everyone, can be, when taken too far.)

Variously described as “bigoted, homophobic, and medieval“, “theocratic“, and “nothing short of chaka“, the decision evinces only the most perfunctory of efforts on the part of the commissioners to find purchase in law, as they derived their concept of immorality from the Bible and from the Koran—or, more accurately, from online sources that cited the Bible and the Koran, which is indicative of how little rigor and seriousness the commissioners applied to the matter. That they then quoted the Constitution underscores how appallingly disingenuous their sensibilities are, for, as has been pointed out in The BLIPS Network and Philippine Commentary, they conveniently managed to skip over those provisions that render the separation of church and state inviolable and uphold the freedom of religion. One statement in Article III, Section 5, seems especially cogent: “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

This is not to say that the state cannot contemplate issues of morality—rather, the nature of the morality it upholds, in view of existing jurisprudence, should be secular and widely accepted.

Public moral disputes must be settled within the framework of an established civil order, for, regardless of how creed-inclusive the COMELEC resolution at hand pretends to be, using the standards of a given religion or religions to shape public policy would go against the very concept of religious freedom—such a concept allows an individual to cleave to no religion whatsoever. A pertinent excerpt from Supreme Court decision on the case of Estrada vs. Escritor (A.M. No. P-02-1651) follows, with key passages emphasized:

In other words, government action, including its proscription of immorality as expressed in criminal law like concubinage, must have a secular purpose. That is, the government proscribes this conduct because it is “detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society” and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other. Although admittedly, moral judgments based on religion might have a compelling influence on those engaged in public deliberations over what actions would be considered a moral disapprobation punishable by law. After all, they might also be adherents of a religion and thus have religious opinions and moral codes with a compelling influence on them; the human mind endeavors to regulate the temporal and spiritual institutions of society in a uniform manner, harmonizing earth with heaven. Succinctly put, a law could be religious or Kantian or Aquinian or utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it must have an articulable and discernible secular purpose and justification to pass scrutiny of the religion clauses. Otherwise, if a law has an apparent secular purpose but upon closer examination shows a discriminatory and prohibitory religious purpose, the law will be struck down for being offensive of the religion clauses as in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice of the Santeria. Recognizing the religious nature of the Filipinos and the elevating influence of religion in society, however, the Philippine constitution’s religion clauses prescribe not a strict but a benevolent neutrality. Benevolent neutrality recognizes that government must pursue its secular goals and interests but at the same time strives to uphold religious liberty to the greatest extent possible within flexible constitutional limits. Thus, although the morality contemplated by laws is secular, benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests.

Furthermore, the state must ensure that its laws square with widely accepted concepts of what is right and what is wrong, for otherwise the law would have no meaning or purpose, and would be impossible to enforce—moral norms ought not to be implemented at the cost of fundamental liberties. Inherent in such a requirement is not a drive toward arbitrariness or whimsy, but a recognition that laws, like the human beings who enact them, are inevitably prone to change. Here is a relevant paragraph from White Light Corporation, et al. vs. City of Manila (G.R. No. 122846):

To be candid about it, the oft-quoted American maxim that “you cannot legislate morality” is ultimately illegitimate as a matter of law, since as explained by Calabresi, that phrase is more accurately interpreted as meaning that efforts to legislate morality will fail if they are widely at variance with public attitudes about right and wrong. Our penal laws, for one, are founded on age-old moral traditions, and as long as there are widely accepted distinctions between right and wrong, they will remain so oriented.

In view of the foregoing, it is worth highlighting that the Revised Penal Code, which, per the Supreme Court itself, is “founded on age-old moral traditions”, does not, in fact, criminalize non-heterosexuality or non-heterosexual acts, no matter how certain provisions—those pertaining to vagrancy and grave scandal, to give two examples—have been misused and abused to censure them, and so it is reasonable to extrapolate that the public has believed since 1930 that, from a legal, secular standpoint, non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual acts are not wrong.

What is most patently offensive about the COMELEC resolution is the conclusion, which is a gem of sheer passive-aggressive persecution: “We are not condemning the LGBT, but we cannot compromise the well-being of the greater number of our people, especially the youth.” The contra-factual, nonsensical assumptions in operation are these: that the LGBT sector and the youth sector are wholly separate; and that the former poses a dire threat to the well-being of the latter, and therefore should be suppressed. In other words, it would seem that the COMELEC is willing to “tolerate”—that supreme act of condescension—the existence of the LGBT community as long as it stays away from the youth, never mind that many young people are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As Indian intellectual Gayatri Spivak has asserted, however, “Tolerance doesn’t work both ways. The rich and the poor are not equally free to sleep under the bridges of Paris. Tolerance is a loaded virtue because you have to have a base of power to practice it. You cannot ask certain people to ‘tolerate’ a culture that has historically ignored them at the same time that their children are being indoctrinated into it.”

Taken to its logical end, the resolution imprisons the LGBT community in social and cultural ghettos easily supervised and controlled, banishes them from public affairs in general and the political arena in particular, and even, as Manolo Quezon points out, lays the ground for the eventual arrest of Ang Ladlad members and supporters, beginning with chairman Danton Remoto. How the COMELEC resolution against Ang Ladlad can be construed as not ultimately condemnatory of the LGBT community can only involve the most convoluted, most contrived, and most morally bankrupt mental maneuvers. It must be stressed that what is at stake here are not the rights of a minority. The rights of representation and participation are not for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals alone—these are human rights, which the state must ever strive to protect against those who would abrogate them.

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.