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Friday, June 17, 2011

Are you really on the side of the Church, Fr. Bernas?

From the I Oppose the RH bill Action Group in Facebook:

An Open Letter to Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ
Prof. Marvin Julian L. Sambajon Jr. 

Your Reverence:


This is in reference to your article posted at the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) last Monday, May 23rd, 2011. But, first and foremost, I would like to sympathize with you if ever a high-ranking ecclesiastical authority labeled you as ‘Judas’ and that you were considered by others a heretic. I understand your position and from that understanding, I am addressing this open reaction letter to Your Reverence for the sake of those who have been listening to your discourses and/or reading your write-ups.

In the same article, you embodied your first position this way:

“First, let me start by saying that I adhere to the teaching of the Church on artificial contraception even if I am aware that the teaching on the subject is not considered infallible doctrine by those who know more theology than I do. Moreover, I am still considered a Catholic and Jesuit in good standing by my superiors, critics notwithstanding!”

Your Reverence, how do you adhere to the teaching of the Church on artificial contraception? When we adhere to certain teaching, we devote ourselves in the observance of such teaching. Moreover, said teaching is made manifest in our gestures, in our dealings, in our principles, and in our advocacy. If we say, we adhere but not observe it, then, adherence is devoid of what it truly means. We become like a “tingling cymbal”. And as a priest adhering to the teaching of the Church on contraception, even common sense dictates that you are one with the Church in teaching that contraception is evil and in enabling people to understand what makes it evil. Are you, truly, one with the Church in this crusade, Your Reverence?

The way I look at them, your positions do not do any good but rather do more harm than good for they aggravate the confusions and divisiveness so characteristic of our nation today along the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill concerns. Much worse, instead of bringing about enlightenment and unity, your articles and discourses exacerbate said confusions and divisiveness, not only among citizens but most significantly among Catholics who look up to you as “Alter Christus” over and above your being a top-caliber constitutionalist, renowned author, intellectual academician, and prolific lawyer. Consequently, confused Catholics and Catholics who have the tendency to use or are actually using contraceptive methods may find moral justification in your positions.

Furthermore, a part of your next argument goes this way:

“Second (very important for me as a student of the Constitution and of church-state relations), I am very much aware of the fact that we live in a pluralist society where various religious groups have differing beliefs about the morality of artificial contraception. But freedom of religion means more than just the freedom to believe. It also means the freedom to act or not to act according to what one believes.

I agree with Your Reverence, that the Philippine society has become pluralistic now. In fact, moral pluralism along contraception conspicuously exists not only among various religious groups but also among Catholics (among priests? Hmm… Hope not). That is why, not a few people adhere to moral subjectivism/relativism so that “what is good or true for you may not be good or true for me and vice versa”. Your being very much aware of the existence of our pluralistic society which is very important to you indicates your high regard and deep respect for religious freedom and individual conscience. Along this line, I am with you, Your Reverence. We have to respect the freedom of religion and conscience. Even erroneous conscience, as inculpably erroneous as it maybe, should be respected. It is a product of ignorance through no fault of one’s own and without any knowledge about being in error. (However, the case would be morally different should conscience become erroneous due to consequential moral blindness stemming from misguided passions inadequately tamed and/or due to insufficient efforts exerted to dispel ignorance and obtain knowledge of what is truly good as distinct from what is truly evil. This does not exonerate the person from moral culpability).

But then, Your Reverence, respect for freedom of religion and conscience does not and should not hamper you from adhering to a much higher value which is to proclaim the truth that sets man truly free and from practicing your ministry which is to teach in accordance with the Church’s teaching. With all the more reasons, your being very much aware of moral pluralism calls and urges you to do something about it, to preach and witness that right is right no matter how many are wrong, and to teach the universality of truth (not conditioned by time and space, culture and individual opinions and beliefs) about the wrongness of contraception thereby informing human consciences (through teaching). And it is up to the people whether or not they will listen and obey. After all, teaching cannot be identical with imposing, with coercing and with forcing. Besides, you (and the Church) do not have police power to invoke and enforce particularly, against those who will defy and disobey. What is important is that you teach no matter how few listen and obey.

I also have the impression that you are treating contraception, in your article, as a religious issue so that if a member of a certain religion believes that it is good, then, he/she can freely act according to that which he/she believes (that contraception is good). And if a Catholic believes it is wrong, then he/she can freely avoid it as it is evil.

I beg to disagree. The issue on whether contraception is wrong or not is not exclusively a religious concern. It is not a religious issue which may be good to a religion that regards it as such, while evil, to a religion that looks at it as such. It is not a Catholic issue that only concerns Catholics.

Contraception is, rather, a moral issue, not according to Christian/Catholic Morality but according to the measure of its relation to that which makes good or evil, to the norm of morality. And the relation of contraception to the norm of morality measures in terms of the disagreement of the former with the latter so that contraception is, indeed, wrong. For the sake of your fans, the norm, proximately refers to the dictates of right reason to which an act should be conformed in order to be right. And what makes reason right is its being anchored on the ultimate norm manifesting itself in the “order of existence of things”.

This “order of existence” stands a priori to any human positive establishment of “order and harmony of things”. It means that such order existed before man ever conceptualized and set any man-made order as in the promulgation of human positive laws. The existence of the entire universe and everything it contains is being maintained by such order without which disorder and unimaginable chaos occur. This order expresses itself in the way everything exists, in what it is and in its last end toward which its existence is directed. If a thing exists this or that way because of what it is and takes a given course according to its nature, it must be what its order of existence mandates. It is a given order. It is not designed by man. It has been there ever since. Hence, reason dictates that it be preserved and not be disturbed or destroyed. Otherwise, disorder and disharmony occur.

That is why, the growth of human existence starts at being a fertilized ovum, a zygote (this happens at the completion of fertilization), then it develops into a morula, then a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus, and not the other way around. Upon birth, he/she starts being an infant, then a toddler, a child, a teen-ager, an adult, then an old man/woman. No human being starts existing by being an old man/woman, then an adult, a teen-ager, a child, then an infant, and so on. Plants and trees grow the way they tend to and not upside down, water seeks its own level, and so on and so forth. These are manifestations of the natural order of existence of things.

It indicates the truth which is necessarily immutable, the universal truth at which man is capable of arriving so that “what is true for you is also true for me while what is false for you is also false for me”. (Moral scientists and philosophers call the ultimate norm which sustains the “order of existence of things” as Eternal Law).

By the light of his intellect, man knows the natural order in the existence of things which he recognizes as that which has to be preserved. We call it natural law. Natural Law refers to the Eternal Law expressed in the natural order of existence and is knowable to man by the use of his intelligence. Acknowledged by man’s reason, the one which is in accordance with the said order is good while the other which runs counter to it is evil. The former is moral whereas, the latter is immoral. Thus, he has the natural capacity to distinguish what is right from what is wrong, to do good and avoid evil (Bonum est faciendum et malum est vitandum).

Now, human reproductive system has its own functions and operations proper to its nature. It operates according to what its nature designs and never according to what it is not (unless, it is arbitrarily interfered with). It is specially designed in the biological order to be the natural vehicle through which the generative power of the human person is exercised. This power is inherent in the very sexual structure of the human person and is able to generate new life when it is employed during sexual intercourse within fertility period.

Conception/fertilization of an egg, can only occur after ovulation. The egg stays alive for about 24 hours once released from the ovary. Sperm can stay alive inside a woman’s body for 3-4 days, but possibly as long as 6-7 days. If a couple has intercourse before or after ovulation occurs, the wife can get pregnant, since the live sperm is already inside the woman’s body when ovulation occurs. Thus a woman can become pregnant from intercourse for about 7-10 days in the middle of her cycle. All these functions of the sexual system proceed from its order of existence. No one can ever deny this reality as it is a ‘given’ configuration.

Now, what do contraceptive methods do? The use of any method of artificial contraception runs counter to and even destroys the “order of existence of things” particularly of human reproductive system. Some of them suppress ovulation when it is supposed to naturally occur as designed by its order of existence, others cause thickening of the cervical mucus making it difficult for the sperm to go through, and still others prevent implantation of the fertilized ovum by altering the normal functioning of the endometrium. All these are arbitrary and positive actions to distort the ‘order of existence of things’ – - of human reproductive system.

Contraception destroys such ‘order’ manifested in the course of its natural functions and operations according to what it is. It makes the reproductive system operate according to what it is not. That is why, contraception is evil as it is in itself. If the Church prohibits it, it is because contraception is intrinsically evil . Its evil proceeds from within itself, from what it is regardless of whether it is prohibited.

From this perspective, this sense of evil which ought to be avoided or this issue on contraception applies not only to Catholics but to all human persons of good will and of right reason regardless of religious denominations and affiliations.

Your last statement:

“Fourth, I have never held that the RH Bill is perfect. But if we have to have an RH law, I intend to contribute to its improvement as much as I can. Because of this, I and a number of my colleagues have offered ways of improving it and specifying areas that can be the subject of intelligent discussion. (Yes, there are intelligent people in our country.) For that purpose we jointly prepared and I published in my column what we called “talking points” on the bill.

Your Reverence, what do you mean by the term “improvement”? The dictionary may say, “improvement” means ‘making things better’. It implies that, that which is to undergo improvement is something already good only that it has to be improved to make it better. And nothing will be removed or erased from that which is to be improved. In fact, its status will just be made better. Now, what is it in the RH Bill (which may eventually become an RH law) that you will try to improve or make better? How can you make things better out of something which is, in itself, wrong?

I also found this statement contrary to the first argument you cited that you adhere to the teaching of the Church on contraception. Since, the Church teaches that contraception is not capable of being ordered to human nature and to God’s law, then, it should also be your stand as you said, you adhere to it. But how come, that you will improve or make better of the RH Bill/Law which boldly promotes that which the Church regards as evil?

Well, there are other meanings that can be attributed to “improvement”. But its use in your paragraph is vague. It can be misconstrued. That is why, I said earlier that confused Catholics and Catholics who have the tendency to use or are actually using contraceptive methods may find moral justification in your positions.

Your Reverence, these are all what make your article more confusing, more perplexing and more divisive than enlightening, illuminating and unifying. I don’t see any contradiction between your being a lawyer and a priest. The two disciplines can even be harmoniously employed to advocate the truth and goodness as opposed to falsity and evil.

Your Reverence, I hope and pray that you take a strong stand on the RH Bill by anchoring it on the order of existence of things. This way, you can effectively deal with and unify our pluralistic society whose sense of ‘truth’ and sense of ‘goodness’ are conditioned only by one’s beliefs, values, opinions, culture and the like, which may of course, vary and even contradict from one person or group to another. Please be a catalyst of unity and order, Your Reverence. Please.

Good day.

Very truly yours:


Prof. Sambajon is an author, a lecturer and a research consultant. He is a graduate of philosophy and has academic background in theology. He is about to finish his masteral studies in theology, major in moral theology. He is also a master of arts in education (M.A. Ed.) holder and is currently pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) in Educational Foundations at the Bicol University, Legazpi City. He has started writing his doctoral dissertation delving into the transformative pedagogical approach to ethics in institutions of higher learning.

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