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Ateneo and the RH bill

/ 07:26 PM September 30, 2012

Back in college, my friends and I immersed ourselves in the communities of Smokey Mountain.  We marvelled at the scavengers’ ingenuity in creating products from scrap, but we despaired over the appalling living conditions and the enormity of the task of providing healthcare and education for so many children.

Mothers tearfully said they did not want any more kids, but abstinence was out of the question, and they knew next to nothing about natural family planning.  Two decades later, nothing seems to have changed.

I knew of an upper-class mother who seemed to be healthy enough, but who suddenly died.  Rightly or wrongly, her family attributed her death to the use of the pill (or something like it) to regulate her monthly periods.


Searching the Internet, they found out that the medication could lead to bleeding, strokes or heart attacks.

I refrained from writing about the RH (reproductive health) bill because I had not yet made up my mind and heart.  But I followed discussions, especially the Inquirer columns of Ateneo Law School dean emeritus Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., and University of the Philippines sociology professor Randy David.

Last month, Ateneo colleagues urged me to sign their letter of support for the RH bill. Though I found the message credible and reasonable, I did not sign because I was still undecided.

As a semi-public figure, I also did not want anyone to sensationalize or misinterpret my stand.

I was not going to air my views until some bishops started excoriating the professors who signed the letter.

Fresh air

Born years after Vatican II, I have been influenced by the religious who, though toeing the official Church line on reproductive health, never damned our souls for future sins.  My classmates and I dutifully memorized bits of “Humanae Vitae,” but we also learned about “Humanae Salutis” and Pope John XXIII’s call for the Church to open its windows to let in fresh air.

I never felt any conflict between science and religion, and considered my faith so vital that I chose Ateneo over UP (my parents’ alma mater). I reveled in the intellectual discourse under brilliant and compassionate theology, philosophy and history professors, several of whom were Jesuits.


Faith is not blind obedience to dogma, I learned, but a reasoned reflection on multiple perspectives, followed by a stand born of prayer, conscience and study.

In class and in individual discussions with Jesuit professors, I wrestled with thorny issues like the Church and Galileo.  The Church may be divinely inspired, my advisors replied, but practitioners are human, with foibles big and small.  My faith strengthened under their wise guidance.

The professors who signed the letter have studied intensively the economics, science and politics of reproductive health.  They have wrestled with their conscience and their faith. Some have worked for years with the poor. They did not write the letter lightly.

When Ateneo president Fr. Jose Villarin, S.J., said as a university Ateneo did not support the RH bill, news reports highlighted this clause: “I ask all those who engage in the Christian formation of our students to ensure that the Catholic position on this matter continues to be taught in our classes, as we have always done.”

The rest of the message was ignored.  Villarin did not order faculty to keep quiet but said, “I enjoin all in the Ateneo community to continue in-depth study of the present bill, and to support amendments to remove provisions that could be ambiguous or inimical from a legal, moral or a religious perspective.”

Some alumni were happy, saying the university was finally muzzling the professors.  Some religious groups said Ateneo was finally making its anti-RH stance clear.

The majority was aghast.  Close friends asked if I signed the letter and if I was in danger of losing my job.  Classmates said they were ashamed of Ateneo for allowing itself to be bullied.  Scientists asked me to pass on the mechanics of fertilization to the administration.  A friend in another university invited me to transfer to his school, promising that academic freedom would always be honored.

But  they got it all wrong.   No sanctions would be meted out to the professors, as reiterated by Loyola Schools vice president John Paul Vergara. Villarin “appreciates their (professors) social compassion and intellectual efforts, and urges them to continue in their discernment for the common good.”


Our dialogue continues.  On Sept. 24, a forum was held at the Ateneo, with Bernas, Fr. John Caroll, S.J., of the Institute on Church and Social Issues,  Marita Castro-Guevara of  the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Fr. Eric Marcelo Genilo, S.J., of the Loyola School of Theology as speakers.

You can read their views  at fatherbernasblogs.blogspot.

com, “Flying a kite in a thunderstorm” (Carroll, PDI, Aug. 20), the Ateneo professors’ open letter (Guevara’s), “Talking points for dialogue on the RH bill,” (Genilo’s, with Bernas and Carroll) in 9056.

In true Ateneo fashion, the faculty was asked to reflect on articles for, against and undecided.  These include Antonio Montalvan II’s “Physics, math and the RH bill” (PDI, Sept. 10), Eleanor Dionisio’s “But doesn’t the CBCP support responsible parenthood?” (PDI, Aug. 2), Francisco Tatad’s “Open letter in response to the 14 signatories of the Ateneo statement, 2008” in http://franciscotatad., the UP economists’ “Population, poverty, politics and the RH bill” (PDI,  July 28), and David’s “The Church, GMA and the RH bill” (PDI, Aug. 1).

Dialogue and discernment are hallmarks of Catholic universities.  Some bishops may be reluctant to speak out —perhaps because, as Carroll said in the forum, of the Roman Catholic Church’s call for unity.

But if moderate voices opt out of the dialogue, then the entire Church will unfairly be seen in an unfavorable light.

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