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Conscientious Catholics come around to contraception law


The pillLast week the United Nations declared that access to contraception is a universal human right. It brings into sharp relief the long-running debate in the Philippines over family planning.

According to UN Population Fund executive director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, 'Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive.'

Yet for decades, Philippine Catholic Church officials have been vocal in their resistance to any state policy that includes artificial contraception. It was not until Benigno Aquino III was elected in 2010 that proponents found a presidential ally. Aquino has so far resisted calls to drop his legislative agenda on reproductive health and 'responsible parenthood' despite threats of a tax boycott and excommunication.

Artificial contraception is taboo in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. The Church holds that it is intrinsically evil as it is non-procreative, a teaching that many Filipino Catholics take to heart. The policy and politics around it is thus personal, and so discourse has been emotive and divisive.

The doctrine is not infallible, though its defenders speak as if it is. Their language has been uncommonly fervent.

Churchgoers have been warned from the pulpit about expulsion should they support legislation. When floods shut down the capital in August, some public figures concluded that 'heaven must be crying' because the bill had progressed to the amendment stage. When 160 faculty members at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University produced a statement supporting the bill, a bishop declared they ought to be investigated for heresy and sacked if found guilty. (There are now 192 signatories.)

The fervour is hollow because it is does not address identified social problems such as high rates of poverty and teenage pregnancy, as well as inconsistent access to sexual health information, products and services.

As a Manila-based friend pointed out to me, the Church's opposition is not about policy, including whether the legislation would effectively meet its stated goals, but doctrine.

In fact, the rhetorical focus on fertility control has been at the expense of other provisions in the bill such as maternal and child health care, age-appropriate sex health education, programs for indigent women and persons with disability, as well as protections for female employees.

Moreover, despite the support of Islamic clerics and Protestant churches for the bill, its critics are yet to reckon with a pluralistic society under (at least nominally) a secular government that is bound to enforce the common good. That is, one that benefits all members including the non-Catholic minority.

In any case, many conscientious Catholics are themselves arriving at the conclusion that they can support the bill without having to renounce their faith. That indeed they can support it in good faith. This is the spirit in which the president of Ateneo de Manila University received the sentiments of academic staff, despite official reticence over aspects of the bill that are 'ambiguous or inimical from a legal, moral or religious perspective'.

Fr Jose Ramon Villarin SJ, in his response to the professors' position paper, noted their 'social compassion and intellectual efforts' and urged them to 'continue their discernment for the common good'.

His statement was received as a balm to a phenomenally heated debate, as it acknowledged that despite their differences, both sides are sensitive to the inherent tensions between ideals and lived realities.

'Catholic tradition has always taught that reason and faith are not enemies but allies in the service of God's truth,' says Fr Villarin. 'From this tradition, we can draw strength and compassion in our often tortuous journey as persons in community toward the greater glory of God and the service of God's people'.

It is the sort of language that may yet reconcile those locked in such a polarised debate. It should be emulated as a way of engaging in conflict, one that assumes the integrity of opponents and focuses on shared problems.


Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter. 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, contraception, Philippines



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Existing comments

Catholics, for that matter, anyone in society, are fooled if they don't ask the big questions in a debate over contraception. The consequences of not asking those questions are that the state will demand more and more power over issues to do with one's very life. We'll end up - some of us are there well and truly, citizens of a state rather than members of the human family. The questions - why would a state want to legislate for contraception rights in the first place, secondly, if contraception rights are legislated what are the implied social contras involved, and thirdly, what have been the economic, social and governmental costs that the nation has had to pay for such contraception rights? One of the considerable failures of how democracy is presently applied in western societies is always that for somebody to have rights, others, often hidden from the debate, always bear a disproportionate level of the costs, in their rights being under protected and/or the greater levels of taxation levied in order to pay the bills.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 20 November 2012  

I am a conscientious Catholic who believes that Christ meant it when he said 'He who hears you hears me' of his church. The Catholic church's teaching on artificial contraception is clear in Humanae Vitae, the Catechism and the consistent view of the church throughout the ages. If some want to twist their consciennces into a pretzel and invent a new view they are welcome to do so but it is not Catholic.

Skye | 20 November 2012  

As an alumnus of Ateneo de Manila University,I am appalled though not shocked at its academic dissent from infallible Humanae Vitae http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt12.html#II “The draconian population control policy of the Reproductive Health Bill would only curtail our economic growth,” said José S. Palma, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. “The problem of countries with former robust economies is the lack of young workers for their industries and inadequate support for their aging population. Can we have enough of schooled, skilled, diligent and highly driven young people who are a driving force of economic progress?”

father john george | 20 November 2012  

It is indeed a moot point as to whether or not a moral position adopted by an individual has to serve 'the common good'. It does, however, serve the individual in so much as his/her decision accords with an informed conscience and does not bring about an unhappy alienisation from belief, practice or, indeed, God. I recall with some clarity a BBC television debate following Paul VI's presentation of Humanae Vitae at the time when the pill had just made its appearance. The English Catholic Primate at the time, Cardinal Heenan, expressed the opinion that the greatest moral obligation of those (man or woman) who produce a child, intended or otherwise, is to the physical and moral wellbeing of that child. Abortion was, he said, therefore, always morally wrong. Contraception, on the other hand, was not morally wrong if in conscience a married couple felt that in the circumstances in which they lived they could not guarantee the physical and moral wellbeing of any issue of their relationship. (He quoted as an example that if a mother living in Nth Ireland at the time of the troubles, when children as young as 6 or 7 years were running around the streets of Belfast throwing Molotov cocktails at English soldiers, decided that she could not guarantee the moral wellbeing of any further child that she bore in that environment, then her moral obligation was to avoid pregnancy and in his words, "to take the pill". This caused a furore at the time but, for me, constituted a living example of the principle of ends justifying the means on the basis of a moral good and crystallised the inherent difference between life prevented by abortion and life prevented by contraception. Any liberalisation of contraception should not be allowed in its outcome to equate with the destruction of already formed human life by abortion.

john frawley | 20 November 2012  

"The doctrine is not infallible, though its defenders speak as if it is. Their language has been uncommonly fervent." Incorrect. The doctrine is infallible. It satisfies the criteria laid down in Lumen Gentium para. 25, a point that even a theologian as liberal as Fr Hans Kung has constantly affirmed. So the relevant statement in the post should be phrased: "The doctrine is infallible, though its opponents speak as if it is not. Their language has been uncommonly fervent." Moreover, Catholics are bound even by teachings which are not infallibly defined. It's a very impoverished view of what the Church is to think that, just because a teaching is not infallible, Catholics may ignore or publicly dispute it.

HH | 20 November 2012  

As far as I am aware Benigno Aquino III is not making artificial contraception compulsory. I would like to obtain access the full text of Fr Jose Ramon Villarin's response to his university's academics' position paper. The extract quoted certainly indicates a priest in touch with the realities of this vale of tears. We are (Sorry! I am) too apt to forget that in this world we/I cannot have everything. Out of the abundance put before me I have to make choices. I am fortunate to be able to afford a car, but if I choose to buy a Mercedes, I don't leave myself much money for the necessities of life. So I choose a second-hand Toyota. But many parents cannot afford to buy a car, any car. Their kids have to walk miles to school because the parents cannot afford public transport. Their choices in life are limited. Our life is the sum total of our choices. It is not for me to further limit the few choices that the poor and marginalised have. Fulminations from the pulpit do little to help the wife whose husband insists on his conjugal rights - no matter the consequences.

Uncle Pat | 20 November 2012  

Well said Fatima. I've no doubt that the ordinary people - women and men - in the Philippines will eventually see the light and ignore those who would otherwise keep them bare-footed, pregnant, poor, and subservient.

Ginger Meggs | 20 November 2012  

Despite the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines manning the doctrinal barricades, gradually their people will reach a free and informed conscience to dissent from Humanae Vitae's teaching on artificial birth control. This will inevitably mean that millions more Catholic women and men will join/will continue to join the upwards of 98% of fellow Catholics elsewhere. The imposition of Humanae Vitae on the Catholic laity has been one of the greatest disasters in Church history. The Sensus Fidelium has clearly determined that the doctrine is not of divine origin, is not infallible and, consequently, they have not received it. No matter how much hierarchical hand-wringing, insistence, threat, declamation and fiddling with Canon Law to determine the mind of God, the majority of the Catholic laity are not going to accept this teaching. It has no great standing, little credibility. The authorities who continue to push it need take a quite walk away from this and to do some radical re-writes on the neo-scholastic constructs from which it emerged.

David Timbs | 20 November 2012  

Sadly, there's a dichotomy of faith and practice in people's lives especially in the lives of those in positions of authority and responsibility. As a Catholic, I stand by my faith that stands for the sanctity and dignity of human life. Sadly, the RH bill does not stand for these. And this is where our roads part. I freely choose to place my trust in the Church and the wisdom that guides it to reject the counter-life principles that run against my faith values and beliefs. These negative principles are essentially what the RH bill has neatly packaged and is agressively marketing as the only solution and truth to the prolems of the country. I dare say - the RH bill is not the solution to the problem of poverty. It is not a solution to anything. If ever, it opens the door to endless evil possibilities. The devil as they say, is in the details. I am making a simple call to all followers of Christ, Catholics included, esp.those swayed by arguments masquerading as truths that this is a socio-political-economic issue - because it isn't: Let's now, more than ever, know more deeply our faith and what it stands for. We need to do this to counter the barrage of counter-life-creation mindset that prevails everywhere in this generation. The upholding of the sanctity and dignity of life - I believe is absolutely non-negotiable, a stand for which followers of Christ should make without compromise. No arguments on the reduction of poverty, teenage pregnancies, etc. will, for me personally, hold water against these beliefs. The sanctity of the human life is bigger and deeper and dearer than any of these socio-economic-political concerns. Rightfully so because in the first place, the solution to these problems doesn't lie in contraception - it lies in the conversion of men's and women's hearts to the point where it becomes natural to have regard, care, respect, compassion and love for the neighbor. I'm a Catholic, a conscientious, Gospel-driven and believing Catholic and I categorically denounce the RH Bill and for all the anti-truth that it stands for. That's my simple and honest take, Fatima For the record, your "interpretation" of Fr.Villarin's statement is rather slanted. You read more than what Fr. V would have wanted to say. He is encouraging the pro RH Bill to discern further, as is expected of a caring shepherd who had to remind members of his flock when they're losing sight of the signposts. It must be understood that he understands them, however, it doesn't mean he is affirming their stand.

Susan Lopez Dee | 20 November 2012  

"SPIN" .... good example of how bias, prejudice can distort the reality. Fr Villarin said emphatically that the Ateneo adheres to Catholic doctrine and the profs should discern the truth ... are there two truths? Therefore, the profs should sooner or later arrive at the conclusion that the Church is right. "Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive.' Filipino women are already, have long been, healthy, educated, empowered in their households and economically productive. Look at the Pinoy family. Look at Phil society. We've already had two women presidents! protections for female employees .... means that employers will be forced to go against their consciences. In the US, Obama was forcing Catholic institutions - schools, hospitals - to provide contraception, abortion to their employees. The Chirch it will have to close down if forced to do so. Obama backed down. We donl;t want the same thing to happen here. In sum, the author is biased and does not realize the truths - overpopulation does not create poverty but vice-versa, that only God has power over life, that contraception leads to an abortion mentality, that the beauty of life is family. Finally, read articles about the UN's population control efforts and the damning evidence of its bias and eugenic sins.

JojoB | 20 November 2012  

An excellent article by Fatima. I concur wholly with David Timbs. It is astonishing that so many of our fellow Catholics have lost any sense of where we live and where we are going as a species. No church, no matter how long its history and how strongly many of its doctrines are held by some, can ignore the direction in which an over-populated (by Homo sapiens) planet is heading. No-one has the right to insist that millions of children are born into poverty and millions of mothers are to carry the burden of child bearing and raising without any power to control their fate. Jesus reached out in compassion to the powerless, yet we have rule makers in our church who seem totally unaware of the consequences of the disaster brought about by the unfortunate release of Humane Vitae by Paul 6, ignoring the finding of a hard-working specialist panel of committed Catholics.

Mike Foale | 20 November 2012  

I pose the question...What has happened to our society... as regards sexual activity... since the pill was invented, and used freely ?

bernie introna | 20 November 2012  

Mr Timbs despite your grandiloquence, "Sensus Fidelium" forfeits validity if it does not conform to magisterium;"Sensus Fidelium" is not "Dogma by Poll" or "lynch mob ethics" or "Mortal Sin by multiple attestation". "Sensus Fidelium includes the "church triumphant" and teaching of 2000 years Before postconciiar dissent,the evil of contraception was held and taught globally by all bishops in union with the Holy Father[another bedrock of infallibility= collegial infallibility a vat2 teaching.]

father john george | 20 November 2012  

Fr John George might profit from some reading on who the Sensus Fidelium actually worked up to, during and after the Council of Niceae. It was precisely the laity's 'Sensus', supported by three bishops which established and secured the Creed. The rest of the Magisterium was Arian. Fr George might read (Bl) John Henry Card. Newman's 'On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine.' It's all thoroughly documented there. The expected, pre-scripted, line which Fr George parrots about 'lynch mob ethics; Dogma by poll; mortal sin by multiple attestation' says a great deal about knee jerk apologetics than a critical mind. If Fr George is serious about debate, he might pay attention to the history of theology and especially that concerning Catholic thought on artificial birth control. He might discover that it does not in fact have a two thousand year history at all and certainly nothing like that grand global claim he so confidently but baselessly asserts. The Fr might like to examine closely the debates of the pontifical commission on birth control with special attention to the arguments of the majority report against the minority on the relevance and authority of 'Casti Conubii' and the proposition that articifial birth control is 'intrinsically evil.'

David Timbs | 21 November 2012  

If The Philippines was entirely a Catholic country and made no claim to being a secular democracy, then it would have difficulty finding a legitimate reason for making artificial contraception readily available. However, in a secular democracy in which the significantly large Muslim and Protestant minorities do not generally share the official Catholic teaching on contraception, the government has a responsibility to those two minority groups of citizens. The Philippines government should not impose a Catholic stricture on citizens who are not Catholic. Fatima states that many Filipino Catholics take to heart the Church's teaching on contraception. So introduction of readily available contraception should not make any difference to them. However the Muslim and Protestant citizens who are not taught that artificial contraception is sinful will be freed of the present difficulty of access to contraception. And yes, those Catholics who do not try to live the ideal as presented in Humanae Vitae will also find it easier to obtain contraception. Their decision to act contrary to a particular Church teaching is between them and God. It is not the role of government to fence them into compliance by continuing to restrict access to contraception.

Iaan Fraser | 21 November 2012  

Fr. Villarin's words are so inspiring that strength and compassion work together for the glory of God and service of God's people

Emmanuel Sant | 21 November 2012  

Mr Timbs ought note that JT Noonan jr[no mean historian of ethical issues and erstwhile open supporter of contraception as in his 1968 book "contraception" concludrd in an NCE historical overview:
"Finally in July of 1968, 2 years after the commissions' recommendations had been submitted, Pope Paul issued his formal answer and judgment in his encyclical humanae vitae, again reaffirming the centuries-old teaching that the deliberate positive action of preventing a life-giving effect from a potentially life-giving act between husband and wife is against the law of God. In doing this he agreed with the minority report and rejected the recommendations of the majority statement of the commission as contrary to the teaching of the Church and unacceptable."

father john george | 21 November 2012  

Thanks Fatima. In clarifying how Catholics and the Catholic Church should respond to a government introducing legislation on contraception, several matters should not be confused or misunderstood. 1. The right of a government to make laws for all its citizens: Vatican II's Declaration on Human Dignity is relevant. Catholics and the Church have a say. Based on our fundamental belief in the Incarnation, it is wise to assert reasons, not doctrine. 2. Contraception is a vague word; the Church has used it vaguely in countless statements. Medically, contraceptive (e.g. condom) and interceptive (e.g. IUD) techniques have a quite different moral status. Rational arguments against the latter are stronger and carry more moral weight. Contraception strictly understood does not endanger a human life. 3. Church teaching on 'contraception' has never been divorced from wider moral responsibilities of human beings. The Popes, especially the current one, are regularly insistent about our obligation not to imperil our planet. 4. The argument from authority is the weakest of all (St Thomas Aquinas). Using 'infallible' or 'heresy' as weapons of argument simply strips these words, and the associated teaching, of meaning. For example, the wisdom in Humanae Vitae is largely lost.

Puffy Ale | 21 November 2012  

Thanks, Fr John George. I thought of Noonan, too - specifically his historical study "Contraception", and a soaring passage which I'm sure you know: "The propositions constituting a condemnation of contraception are recurrent. Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick, and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful." (From the Introduction.) So much for the assertion above that the teaching on contraception emerged from neo-scholastic constructs!

HH | 22 November 2012  

St Padre Pio to Pope Paul VI: September 12, 1968 Your Holiness, … I know that your heart is suffering much these days … for the lack of obedience of some, even Catholics, to the high teaching that you, assisted by the Holy Spirit and in the name of God, are giving us. I offer you my prayers and daily sufferings as a small but sincere contribution on the part of the least of your sons in order that God may give you comfort with his Grace to follow the straight and painful way in the defense of eternal truth, which never changes with the passing of the years. Also, in the name of my spiritual children and the Prayer Groups, I thank you for your clear and decisive words that you especially pronounced in the last encyclical "Humanae Vitae"; and I reaffirm my faith, my unconditional obedience to your illuminated directions. ...

HH | 22 November 2012  

Those Roman Catholics in the Philippines opposed to contraception can approve the legislation for the country but decline to practise it themselves. Thus they uphold the freedom of conscience for all citizens.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 23 November 2012  

To Mary Samara-Wickrama, who says 'thus they [can] uphold the freedom of conscience for all citizens'. Quite. But that is not what the Church in the Philipines wants, rather it wants to impose its own version of morality on everyone, believers and non-believers alike. This is the same Church that cried freedom of religion over Obama's medical insurance scheme.

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2012  

There is a lot to look at when this issue is discussed. Some people like "short cuts" and an "easy way" with this issue.
Open your minds and look a bit more deeply, perhaps there are things that can be said that are not being said? There is still a matter of "free will" also attached to this moral question.The soft approach by the writer of this article is also at play here.

harry g. | 24 November 2012  

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