To the community of the Ateneo de Manila University:
We, alumni of our alma mater, wish to respond to the position paper authored by 14 members of our faculty. We laud our professors for a wide-ranging presentation on the Philippine social situation, most especially the undesirable effects of an unmanaged population growth to women, the poor and our young people. We commend their dedication to the integral human development of the Filipino people in these troubling times. However, with respect and fraternal charity towards them, we respond that Catholics cannot support the RH Bill in good conscience.
The question of which method Catholics can and should use in the regulation of birth has been resolved in the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (quoted as HV)of Pope Paul VI. “…the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles” (HV 16).
Several questions—and indeed objections—arise from this teaching. We ask, “Is this teaching of the Holy Father definitive?” While the fact remains that Pope Paul VI did not issue the above-mentioned encyclical ex cathedra, it is also a fact that the Pope and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 25). “The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teaches the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2034).
We therefore distinguish between a solemn magisterium of the Church and an ordinary and universal magisterium (cf. Code of Canon Law 750). Catholics are exhorted to believe those things which are “proposed as divinely revealed either (italics ours) by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium” (ibid.). “All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines” (ibid.). Since Humanae Vitae is an exercise of the ordinary teaching faculty of the Holy Father, we can rely on it to be a truthful and faithful interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
A second question arises, “How did Pope Paul VI arrive at such a pronouncement?” An extensive commentary on the encyclical is beyond the scope of this letter, but it will suffice for the moment to say that the Holy Father considered two points: the social situation of his time (and indeed of ours) and an authentic interpretation of the moral law. Very early in the encyclical, Pope Paul VI recognizes that “the changes that have taken place are of considerable importance” (HV 2). He comments on the rapid increase in population and the incommensurate increase in resources, and therefore the difficulty of raising a large family.
However, he is quick to clarify that while the Church encourages parents to be responsible in planning their families, responsible parenthood “concerns the objective moral order which was established by God and of which a right conscience (italics ours) is the true interpreter” (HV 10). Neither the Church nor the Pope can invent the truth about the sanctity of human life and the divine gift that is the sexual faculty. They can only articulate and clarify it, but never create it. In our effort to be a Church for the Poor and to look at reality from the poor’s perspective, we remember that it is only Jesus who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6) and we look to the Church and the Pope, to whom the keys were given, for guidance and counsel.
A third objection surfaces, “What of the primacy of conscience?” The position paper of the professors states, “Catholic social teachings similarly recognize the primacy of the well-formed conscience over wooden compliance to directives from political and religious authorities” (page 13). While it is true that our conscience always bids us to follow its voice, “in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him in obedience” (Gaudium et Spes 16).
Following one’s conscience is therefore not a matter of what one “feels” or “thinks” to be right or wrong. Rather, conscience must stand as a “witness to the authority of truth (italics ours) in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 177). The Catechism quotes John Henry Cardinal Newman who says, “[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives” (ibid. 1778). The task of conscience is therefore not to invent truth, but to discern what is true by listening to the voice of Jesus echoed by and through the Church.
It is important to understand that this argument does not lead to a “wooden compliance to directives.” Our faith, in St. Anselm’s words, is a faith that seeks understanding, fides quaerens intellectum. Catholics therefore do not blindly obey teachings just because they come from the Church. Rather, their faith bids them to seek to understand the mind, heart and spirit of the Church and make them his own.
In the Gospel of St. John, when the Lord told the crowd, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (6:51), some of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” (6:60). “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (6:66). GK Chesterton poetically articulated this attitude when he said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
We are similarly faced with a “hard saying”—a faithful and true saying, but hard nevertheless. The Church is not blind to the plight of women, the poor and our young people, but as Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales recently affirmed, this issue is not simply a matter of demographics, economics or sociology. “It’s an ethical issue… It’s a moral issue.” The Church cannot alter the truth about the sanctity of life and the sexual faculty to provide a ready answer to our social dilemma. Catholics whose consciences are good and well formed, and are docile to the honest but firm voice of the Church are bound by conscience not to support the RH Bill. Rather, faced with strong opposition from every side, they turn to our Lord together with St. Peter and exclaim, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68).