Birth-control feud divides church, state


MANILA - Philippine Senators crossed party lines last week to side with President Benigno Aquino in a showdown with the Catholic Church over national birth-control policy. Legislators shed their partisan loyalties after Catholic Bishop Nereo Odchimar promised to excommunicate all political leaders who support the proposed Senate Bill No. 2378, “An Act Providing for a National Policy on Reproductive Health and Population and Development”. This is seen by many as a growing crack in the State’s historically close relationship with the Catholic church.

In an unusual admonition letter, the feisty Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, the author of the bill, publicly appealed to Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), not to excommunicate her, President Aquino and other politicians advocating the controversial measure.

Santiago has typically allied herself with President Benigno's most ardent political rivals, but not on this issue.

"May I respectfully submit that the penalty of excommunication for pro-reproductive-health legislators, who are merely exercising the preferential option for the poor under liberation theology, would be too extreme and disproportionate," Santiago said. "It will raise constitutional issues about church-state relationship."

Senator Santiago believes that “liberation theology," which she was taught since childhood and which calls for freeing the poor from social, political and economic oppression, is a key rationale for the reproductive-health bill.

Santiago also cited historical data showing that the majority in the 1966 Papal Commission for the Study of Population, the Family, and Birth, established by Pope Paul VI, supported the regulation of births.

Paul VI endorsed the study's minority view, however, which led to his famous 1968 encyclical "Humana Vitae" (On the Regulation of Human Birth). The "unfortunate" global response, Santiago claims, has caused Catholic couples the world over to ignore the encyclical's teaching.

Santiago sees two main arguments against contraception in the 1966 report. One is that opposition to contraception is the “constant and perennial” (sic) teaching of the Church. The second argument is based on so-called natural law.

"The anti-reproductive-health advocates fail to recognize the evolutionary character of Church teaching." Santiago wrote. "This does not undermine the moral teachings authorized by the Church. On the contrary, it allows a more mature comprehension of the whole doctrine."

The natural-law theory is already obsolete, Santiago went on. People should be allowed to help nature and biological processes along, rather than to abandon their bodies to chance, so that we can achieve the true ends of marriage and life, she added, referencing the majority's 1996 report.

The conjugal act must be viewed not in isolation but in the larger context of human existence, including love, family life, education, etc.

"So please do not excommunicate President Aquino, myself, and those similarly situated,” Santiago concluded.

President Aquino’s staunch ally and former Senate President, now Senate Finance committee chairman, Franklin Drilon, used more scathing words to “rebuke” the bishop.

“We lament and are saddened by the hysterical reaction of Bishop Odchimar,” said Drilon, who went on to say that threatening to excommunicate President Aquino is “exceptionally uncalled for.”

“Threats and intimidation will not bring us to a rational conclusion on this controversy nor will they help solve the problems of the country,” Drilon said, stressing that he was addressing his statement to Bishop Odchimar and not the entire CBCP.

Drilon said he hoped Odchimar would approach the matter in a “sober and rational manner," since, according to Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, President Aquino has not made a major policy shift on reproduction health and remains open to discussing the matter.

“Dialogue is the best way to resolve this controversy because we believe government and the Catholic Church share a common vision which is addressing the mass poverty problem of the country and providing a better society for our people,” Drilon said.

Drilon chided Bishop Odchimar for taking such a vocal stance now and staying silent in the past when the country needed him more, during the abuses and excesses of the President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration, Drilon said.

And what of criticizing the ZTE bribery scandal, the Fertilizer Scam, the Hello Garci election fraud and more recently, the P1 million Le Cirque dinner in New York, Drilon wanted to know.

“Sadly", Drilon said, "we did not hear from him then.”