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Flying a kite in a thunderstorm

President Aquino may be chuckling behind his hand at the way in which his remark about “responsible parenthood” put a cat in the chicken coop. Amid the excited cackling that followed the President’s remark, it took Prof. Bernardo Villegas of Opus Dei to remind listeners on Radio Veritas that responsible parenthood is part of the Catholic moral tradition. Popes and bishops around the world as well as Philippine bishops have many times used it in insisting that, while a new life is a gift from God, parents should not procreate indiscriminately. Rather, they should strive, using natural family planning (NFP) if called for, to have only the number of children that they can provide for properly.

The reminder is timely, given that in the 44 years since the Encyclical “Humanae Vitae” reasserted the traditional doctrine forbidding artificial contraception, there has been virtually no progress here on the national level in mainstreaming NFP. This despite the fact that the programs of Archbishop Antonio Ledesma in Ipil Prelature and the archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro demonstrate that many couples want to be given a choice. Moreover, our own action-research in Pansol, Quezon City, showed that some 40 percent of women who had been instructed in NFP began practicing and some 27 percent were continuing, and that the “failure” or pregnancy rate was about 9 percent—about the same in actual use as that of the pill. NFP is neither Vatican roulette nor a silver bullet to slay the beast of contraception, but it is a viable option untried by both Church and state.

And yet, there is more to responsible parenthood than NFP, namely family values in general. In 25 years of part-time pastoral-social work at Payatas, I have become aware of the pressure of large families on parents with no job skills suitable for urban life and no income opportunities other than the garbage dump. But the bigger problems are infidelity, multiple families, family conflict, children abandoned by parents. I wish I can recount here the stories of some of our scholars, tragic accounts of broken and dysfunctional families. The vaunted Filipino family is in crisis, and the root of the crisis is not contraception but the loss of family values.

Here I see a need, not for a scorched-earth policy by either side in the current debate but for a deeper commitment by both to the common good—of which a primary element, according to Catholic social thought, is social peace based on justice. We are talking of law here, and Fr. John Courtney Murray, the main architect of Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” wrote that “all law looks to the common good which is normative for all law. And social peace, assured by equal justice in dealing with possibly conflicting groups, is the highest integrating element of the common good.”

Elsewhere Murray insisted that “society is civil when it is formed by men locked together in argument.” And “if the public argument dies from disinterest, or subsides into the angry mutterings of polemic, or rises to the shrillness of hysteria … you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the City.”

For more than 40 years the debate has gone on here in the Philippines, with incalculable costs in time, energy, money, and good will—to social peace and the common good. And to the teaching authority of the Church, as many are turned off by the slogans being shouted at the “enemy” while no attempt is made to listen to his or her arguments. The barbarian seems to be already inside the City.

One may or may not accept the arguments that rapid population growth has been a drag on economic development, and family size a burden on poor parents trying to provide education and health care for their children. One may legitimately be concerned about the long-term effects of an aging population. One may doubt the readiness of local health workers to fully respect the freedom of conscience of poor women. But it seems clear that the resources sunk into the debate and being sunk into it, could have been put to more productive use for the common good.

Hence, at the risk of seeming to fly a kite in a thunderstorm, thus risking  a lightning bolt, and with due respect for the positions of our bishops, I would suggest that the prayer-rallies and lobbying efforts being engaged in by the  pro-RH bill and anti-RH bill groups be aimed, not at total victory, but at a negotiated compromise “equally objectionable to all parties.” If the bill is defeated in the current session of Congress, it will surely reappear in the next session. Negotiation and compromise can lay the public issue to rest, avoid further alienation of potential allies in future debates over abortion, allow the Church to concentrate on NFP and strengthening family values among its people, and clear the deck for more constructive action by the state.

There could well be a chance to negotiate amendments which will make the bill more acceptable to the Church: greater protection for the consciences of health workers and teachers; autonomy of religious schools in preparing their sex-education programs; the possible abortifacient effects of certain pills. Above all I would suggest that there be representatives of the churches in an oversight committee, with real authority to receive complaints and see that the rules are observed.

Responsible parenthood, yes. But responsible citizenship also!

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