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An own goal for the Church

Response to RH law has crippled Catholicism in the Philippines

  • Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila
  • Philippines
  • January 18, 2013
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What lessons has the Catholic Church learned from the passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law in the Philippines? The controversial bill signed into law last month provides greater access to birth control and to sex education. Yet no one in this predominantly Catholic country has risen up in protest, as had been threatened.

The legal challenges filed before the Supreme Court are those hurled by friends of the hierarchy. The power of the Catholic Church is “waning,” newspapers and social media say. The emperor has no clothes.

What went wrong? Forty long years ago, a Catholic mother mournfully asked her daughter, “You’re taking the pill?” No sustainable alternative was offered. Neither was language that wove together faith, babies and choice. It was a lost opportunity over two generations, multiplied in millions of families, steadily getting embedded as the norm. In a rude awakening to its default, the hierarchy belatedly rushed into action unleashing medieval fire-and-brimstone, threats and vitriol that alienated its members.

“Many have gone from supporting the RH Law to questioning whether the Church is relevant to them,” a thoughtful Oscar Franklin Tan wrote. “The disconnect has gone well past intellect to an emotional level where one finds himself unconsciously cringing at the thought of listening to a homily on Christmas Eve.” 

Sick of accusations that they practiced “cafeteria Catholicism,” Catholics turned around and accused the Church of picking and choosing issues to hammer on and which to handle with kid gloves such as sexual abuse by priests.

In the wake of the debacle, newly installed Cardinal Antonio Tagle had better sense to admit that “the Church cannot and must not pretend to have easy answers…. Instead, it must be an attentive and listening Church – only that way will people believe that God listens to them too.”

He added that the Church should be more humble, modeling herself “more on Jesus and being less preoccupied by her power, prestige and position in society.”

So where might the Church go from here? A Philippine proverb advises that one stands up in the spot where one falls. Having failed on the matter of parenthood and teaching, the Church might reframe itself from “Emperor” into “Mater et Magistra”, the “Mother and Teacher of all nations. Her light illumines, enkindles and enflames.”

Promulgated by John XXIII in 1961, the encyclical Mater et Magistra urged the “Venerable Brethren and Dearest Sons” to imitate Christ who had compassion “for the multitude” and to rely not merely upon her teaching, “but also upon her own widespread example.”

As teacher, the Church will need to practice the “mutual love” espoused by the encyclical, and the stance behind successful learning and motivation used by Jesus the teacher. The strategies are for the fearless and wise: dialogue, peer collaboration, questioning, students bringing knowledge into the discussion and joint knowledge construction.

Underpinning that is the realization that it is not fear of authority but internalization that aids real learning. As teacher, the Church could learn from studies in life-long learning and how it is shaped by cultural, institutional and historical contexts. 

It must learn how to mine the growing importance of faith as a defining quality of religion, and address the rejection of dogma, hierarchies and the “disastrous merger of the Church with empire.”

When it comes to reproductive health, it may have to learn from the women, and teach its “venerable brethren and dearest sons.”

As mother, the Church needs to look at the hen that protects its chicks under its wing. It will need to learn to bless its children with the best hopes for the future, a future far better than the unfortunate Bishop Gilbert Garcera’s vision of Filipinos as caregivers and wives to the aging industrialized world.

Just as crucial, it would have to redeem the image of God as wrathful judge, and to tell stories of the God who frees, heals and comforts.

As for us, adult children, we too must realize that the Church is not perfect, and that we as a church ought to prepare for the next test in which the personal is political – the issues of divorce and same-gender marriage.

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and currently works in lay and continuing education

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