The Catholic debate over fertility regulation is now so muddled that even the bishops seem to have become confused.
The day after President Aquino declared in his State of the Nation Address that his administration would promote responsible parenthood, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa was reported to have said: “We in the prolife movements are so disgusted with these vigorous pronouncements in support of responsible parenthood.”
I suspect that the good archbishop was misquoted, or that he really meant, not “responsible parenthood,” but “reproductive health,” or that he meant “the Responsible Parenthood bill,” which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) says is reproductive health in responsible parenthood’s clothing.
That still would not have pleased many, including a number of Catholics, who find some prolife reactions to the Responsible Parenthood bill a bit hysterical. But disgust with statements in support of reproductive health would at least be consistent with the CBCP’s previous positions.
Disgust with statements in support of responsible parenthood, however, would be embarrassing to the CBCP, which has made such statements for more than 40 years.
The CBCP first proffered the concept of responsible parenthood at the end of the 1960s, as a Catholic alternative to “population control.” Population control emphasized birth reduction targets set by governments; responsible parenthood emphasized the empowerment of couples to choose how many children they could raise in a manner consistent with human dignity. But the bishops maintained, in line with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” that for Catholics the practice of responsible parenthood did not admit the use of contraception.
The CBCP cosponsored, with the Bureau of Public Schools and the private sector, “a nationwide program of education and service in responsible parenthood,” spanning 11 provinces by 1973. The bishops understood then that having more children than one could support was a problem for both the family and the nation, and that to solve it they had to work with the government—even if they were not happy that the government favored the distribution of contraceptives. Cooperation ceased when the CBCP judged the Marcos dictatorship’s population program to be deceptive and coercive, lacking respect for the consciences and choices of its clients.
Four years after the fall of the dictatorship, in its 1990 “Guiding Principles” on population control, the CBCP renewed the push for responsible parenthood: “This means, among other things, that couples should bring into the world generously the children [whom] they can raise up as good human beings, but they should seek to bring into the world only those that they can raise up as good human beings.”
In 1991, the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines—the assembly of bishops, clergy, religious, and laity which set the Philippine Catholic Church’s directions for the 21st century—inscribed responsible parenthood into its “Acts and Decrees.” This document declared that parents “should strive to beget only those children whom they can raise up in a human way.”
In 2001, in its joint pastoral statement “Saving and Strengthening the Filipino Family,” the CBCP said: “Even as children are precious gifts of God, we must realize that ‘responsible parenthood’ has to be exercised.”
In 2005, the CBCP pastoral letter “Hold on to your Precious Gift” further elaborated on the Catholic concept of responsible parenthood, quoting passages from “Humanae Vitae”: “It calls for due regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions in deciding ‘to raise a numerous family.’ It includes the spouses’ decision ‘based on grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth’” (italics in original).
In 2009, the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, in its “Catechism on Family and Life for the 2010 Elections,” stated that married couples have “a vocation to give life,” but only “as long as they can responsibly care for the children they beget.” While responsible parenthood might include “the decision … to generously raise a numerous family if the couple [are] capable of doing so,” it might also include the decision, “if there are serious reasons (health, economic, social, psychological, etc.), not to have another child for the time being or indefinitely.”
The Catechism added: “Neither the government nor the Church may tell couples how many children to have, for the decision to have either a large or a small family rests on the couple themselves.”
The point is that the Roman Catholic Church supports responsible parenthood. Some Church people have attacked the President’s endorsement of responsible parenthood because they read it as support for the Responsible Parenthood bill, which includes the promotion of contraceptive use. But those attacks merely confuse the faithful, antagonize the rest, and help no one to exercise responsible parenthood.
Church people may want to see the President’s statement instead as a chance to educate the public on the Catholic definition of responsible parenthood. Better yet, they may want to spend less energy on being disgusted—or on making vigorous statements about responsible parenthood, for or against—and more energy on actually empowering couples to become responsible parents.