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Remembering a great legal and religious mind

Jesuit lawyer Father Joaquin Bernas has left a Catholic legacy in the Philippine constitution and law

Remembering a great legal and religious mind

Jesuit Father Joaquin Bernas was liberal and fair. (Photo supplied)

The recent death of Father Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit legal expert and one of the architects of the Philippine constitution, is a huge loss to Filipinos.

At a time when human rights are being seen to be trampled on through extrajudicial killings and illegal arrests, Father Bernas could have enlightened and uplifted a nation being overpowered by fear and confusion.

Father Bernas' views were not always popular even among Catholics. When the country’s Reproductive Health Law was set to be passed by Congress in 2012, several priests and bishops called it “demonic” for going against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

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Many bishops believe using artificial birth control is contrary to being a good Catholic. But Father Bernas was firm in his opinion. For him, his opinion was based on the organic law — the constitution — which he drafted together with the best legal minds of his time.

“There’s an archbishop who considered me a heretic. He is free to do that, although I disagree with his position. But my position is based on constitutional law and I think I know constitutional law,” he said in one interview.

Father Bernas thought that religious beliefs, although respected in the constitution, must not interfere with legislation, particularly in relation to practicing responsible parenthood.

“The state should not prevent people from practicing responsible parenthood according to their religious beliefs, nor may churchmen compel the president, by whatever means, to prevent people from acting according to their religious beliefs,” Father Bernas wrote in a column for a leading Philippine daily at the time.

Father Bernas said what was wrong was not Catholic belief per se but the belief that Catholic belief must be followed by the government.

He received a lot of hate mail from Catholic conservatives because of his position.

The bishops’ Commission on Family and Life rejected Bernas’ view, saying that all legislation is based on “natural law,” a system based on close observation of human nature, which includes the purpose of sex for procreation.

Gabriel Reyes, then bishop of Antipolo, said the Church’s opposition to contraception was not purely about religious beliefs but “based on natural law.”

“Catholic teaching on contraceptives is based on natural law — an expression of moral law, based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is universal and appeals to common principles,” he wrote in response to the Jesuit lawyer’s views.

But Father Bernas stood his ground. He said that Congress could legislate laws independent of any religious belief even if they are against the beliefs of the Catholic Church.

“The government is not a Catholic government. It is a secular government. And it is for all,” Father Bernas replied.

For Father Bernas, the constitution was “very clear” that religious belief cannot be made into an obstacle to public life.

“Some of those who have criticized my position say that the debate here is not about religious belief but about moral belief. Well, you cannot impose religious beliefs on anyone. Neither can you impose moral beliefs on anyone,” he said.

Bernas explained that the belief that “using contraception is immoral in the Catholic Church” does not mean that other religions should likewise hold the same view.

“All religious and moral beliefs must be respected … and the government must also respect that,” Father Bernas said.

Father Bernas’ surgical comments on the law and social issues in the Catholic Church are one of the many things lawyers and academicians will miss about him.

His works on the constitution have been textbook reading for many first-year law students in the Philippines. His lectures and columns continue to guide lawyers and the public in addressing key issues in law and government.

“On matters between religion and the law, Father Bernas was liberal and fair. He was the St. Thomas More of our time,” said former Supreme Court Justice Mariano del Castillo.

English lawyer Thomas More, the patron saint of statesmen and lawyers, reportedly said at his own execution in 1535 that “I die the king's good servant, but God's first."

Father Bernas was first of all a Jesuit, a man for others, called to find God in all things. Certainly, he found God in the law by protecting human rights in the 1987 Philippine constitution. He found God in the academe, in the students he taught and inspired.

Like St. Thomas More, Father Bernas may have been a constitutional expert, but he was certainly God’s man first.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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