Our Catholic Church also needs reform.

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva                                                          

The Bohol Chronicle                                                                                                                                   April 1, 2012

Our Catholic Church also needs reform.

Reforming our State and politics.  As a political science student and teacher, I have continually   advocated reforms in our politics and government, citizenship and leadership. I have focused on political and governmental institutions that I have found dysfunctional: I mean ineffective and unable to perform their assigned functions well as should be expected in a well functioning democracy. As a result these institutions aggravate some of our economic problems (poverty and unemployment), social problems (inadequate education and health services), and political problems (injustice, corruption, bad governance).   

Pervasive role and impact of our Catholic Church. In the daily news and in our parish churches, we know that our Catholic Church plays a very important role in our society, government and politics. Religious leaders are daily making their views known on particular public issues, policies and decisions. For example, they are vigorously opposing the Reproductive Health (Responsible Parenthood) bill: H.B. 5043 that proposes reproductive health education and the use of safe contraceptives to help control the rapid growth of our population, far beyond the capacity of our economy to support more children and older people.      

Can Catholics Support the RH Bill? “Yes!” insists Mary Racelis, a devoted Catholic and a sociologist at the Ateneo de Manila and formerly with the UNICEF. “Growing numbers of professional and educated lay Filipino Catholics believe they can.” Let me quote her reasoned position at length.

“Catholic NGO workers, social workers, and social science researchers working in poor rural and urban communities overflowing with malnourished, out-of-school children and youth…. find it difficult to accept that poor mothers and fathers who want to avoid a fourth or fifth pregnancy or wait a few years before the next one, should be condemned [by the Church] for choosing reliable, contraceptive family planning methods.”

“Then there is the deafening silence of the Church on how to respond to the thousands of poor women who undergo clandestine, unsafe abortions for lack of access to modern family planning. In 2000, 473,000 women had induced abortions, 79,000 of them winding up in hospitals from complications, and 800 leaving as corpses.” xxx By 2008 the World Health Organization estimates that this … statistic may be as high as 800,000!”

“The Bill recognizes this reality by offering poor women safer and more effective choices for preventing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. Because it enables women to reject the unsafe abortion route, the Bill can legitimately be called anti-abortion.”  

“The low priority given to women’s needs results in their appalling health status. Ten die each day, or 3,650 per year, from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes. One Filipina out of 140 faces the risk of maternal death in her lifetime.  Contrast this with one in 500 for Thai women, and one in 560 for Malaysian women.  Maternal mortality rates in the Philippines are unacceptably high at 162 per 100,000 live births.  The corresponding ratio for Thailand is 110 and for Malaysia 62. Skilled attendants are present at birth for 60% of Filipinas, while the comparable figures for Thai women reach 97% and Malaysian women 98 %. Buddhists and Muslims seem to do better by their women than Catholics!”

“Catholics who support the Bill appreciate the accountability it demands of government in mandating as national policy specific benefits to women and families, “more particularly to the poor and needy.”  Examples include Mobile Health Care Services in every Congressional District, and one emergency obstetric hospital per 500,000 population.  Midwives and skilled birth attendants must be available in every city and municipality to attend to women during childbirth in a ratio of one per 150 deliveries per year. Maternal death reviews will be conducted locally in coordination with the Department of Health and POPCOM. Hospitals will handle more complex family planning procedures.

“Given these and other benefits, educated Catholics feel vindicated in supporting a Bill that offers women and families comprehensive health and family planning services as a matter of right and choice. Church proclamations alleging that House Bill 5043 is “anti-poor,” “anti-women,” “pro-abortion,” and “immoral” ring hollow in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary. The Bill reads exactly the opposite as pro-poor, pro-women, anti-abortion, and respectful of human life.

“Moreover, its provisions satisfy Catholic consciences as being compatible with the Church’s social teachings, including the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, integral human development, and the primacy of conscience.  In this light they urge that the Church listen to them as responsible Catholic laity who offer their Church the advantage of evidenced-based approaches to the evolving needs of 21st century Philippine society.

“By ceasing its attacks on the Bill, allowing it to pass, and concentrating instead on monitoring implementation, the Church will convey an important point to its uneasy, increasingly critical lay members – that despite its hierarchical structure and celibate, all-male leadership, it can still respond meaningfully to the needs and aspirations of poor women and their families.  At the very least, let us hope the Church resists the temptation to “shoot the messengers” who dare to articulate alternative but realistic Catholic views!”

I should report that in our parish chapel in Beverly Hills, Antipolo City, Mary Racelis strongly reacts to the prayer at the end of our Sunday mass condemning the RH Bill without giving the parish a chance to hear the other side of the controversial issue, as she has argued well. She has dialogued with our parish priest and our Archbishop, but it is most unlikely that our parishioners will be given equal time to hear the affirmative side of HB 5043.

Re-democratize the Catholic Church. Another major scholar and personal friend, economist Ernesto M. Pernia of the U.P. School of Economics and formerly of the Asian Development Bank has written on the subject in the Business World (Feb. 21, 2012). “Deep reforms in both” Church and State “bogged down by misgovernance are called for if the country is to move to a path of sustained economic and social progress.” Dr. Pernia takes the same position as Prof. Mary Racelis in arguing in favor of the RH bill and the democratization of the Catholic Church in relation to its lay members.  

Let me also quote Dr. Pernia at length. “Reform of the Church is the subject of an award-winning book – As It Was in the Beginning: the Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2007) – by Robert McClory, a former theologian-church historian and currently professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. His thesis is that the early church was actually democratic, participative and listening-to-the-laity and not the centralized, hierarchical and autocratic institution that it is today; reform merely entails that the church revert to what Jesus Christ himself intended it to be.

“Several biblical passages substantiate the belief that Christ wanted the church to be non-authoritarian, consultative, and compassionate. He told his apostles and disciples to be servant leaders: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark, 10:43-45).

“Such apparently was the paradigm that guided the early church. Thus, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa (248-258) – whose leadership style was also that of then Pope Cornelius in Rome – writing to his impatient clergy, says: “I can make no reply on my own, for it has been a resolve of mine … to do nothing on my own private judgment without your counsel and the consent of the people” (McClory, p. 42).

“The practice of consulting the ‘sense of the faithful’ or of taking seriously the old Roman adage, ‘What touches all must be approved by all,’ was largely followed in the first millennium. A major shift occurred at the start of the second millennium with Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), the central figure of Gregorian Reform, according to McClory, that set the church on a different path (reinforced by Pope Pius X’s (1903-1914) Oath Against Modernism) that extends to today.

“McClory quotes Brian Tierney, the prolific historian of the medieval world: “The practices of representation and consent that characterize secular constitutional government are not alien to the tradition of the church. And if in the future the church should choose to adopt such practices to meet its own needs in a changing world, that would not be a revolutionary departure but a recovery of a lost part of the church’s own early tradition” (p. 71). xxx

“An attempt at such a recovery was made with the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII (1958-1965) under Vatican Council II to bring back the church’s early tradition of openness, servant leadership, participation of and consultation with the laity. But this fell by the wayside with his untimely demise seven years later. xxx   

“The Church today remains top-down, authoritarian, and dismissive of the voice of the laity. This is particularly so in the Philippines where the laity prefer to stay silent and be seen as submissive to Church authority. A case in point is reproductive health/family planning which the dominant majority of Filipinos have consistently favored, albeit anonymously, via repeated surveys but would rather be mum about it in public. Similarly, as regards the pending divorce bill that would also benefit the poor who have great difficulty obtaining annulment that can however be easily resorted to by the rich.

Sans structural reforms, the Church will likely continue to alienate its faithful as it drifts towards irrelevance, while the State watches idly the economy missing its development potential.”


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