Coming together in support of academic freedom
“To be a university is to celebrate freedom and debate; to be Catholic is to celebrate submission to a canon.”
This was why La Salle political science professor Dr. Antonio Contreras called the term “Catholic university” an oxymoron at the recent three-hour forum among students of Ateneo de Manila University, De la Salle University and the University of the Philippines (UP) held at the UP Law Center in Quezon City.
The forum was organized to highlight the importance of academic freedom in institutions of higher learning, particularly in Catholic universities, a discussion triggered by the controversial editorial that appeared in the University of Santo Tomas student paper The Varsitarian that called the 192 Ateneo and the 45 La Salle professors who declared support for the reproductive health (RH) bill “intellectual pretenders and interlopers.”
Titled “RH bill, Ateneo and La Salle: Of Lemons and Cowards,” the editorial drew varied reactions from netizens in social media and from the traditional media as well.
Contreras advanced the discussion by posing the following key questions to students, representatives of the urban poor and professionals present at the forum.
“Can a university remain a university if it is Catholic? Is the Catholic university an extension of the Roman Catholic Church? Are the faculty members in Catholic universities agents of knowledge or agents of the church?”
Contreras admitted that answering these questions was difficult since it involved “contentious politics.” He, however, said “[t]here are creative and political ways to resist by appropriating even discourses from the canon law and church teachings to support academic freedom.”
When asked whether the writer (or writers) of the editorial and the netizens that reacted against the article violated any law, former UP College of Law dean and Inquirer columnist Dr. Raul Pangalangan answered that “if the problem is wrong speech, [then] the solution is more speech.”
Ateneo sociology and anthropology professor Dr. Mary Racelis was just glad to have found an ally from another Catholic university, saying “[w]e are happy that La Salle joined us [in this fight for academic freedom].”
The quips and the testaments coming from the panelists drew loud applause from students of the three universities, stalling the lectures a bit from time to time.
Quoting from landmark cases involving higher education institutions in the Philippines and the United States, Pangalangan said: “In a university, knowledge is its own end, not merely a means to an end. A university ceases to be true to its own nature if it becomes the tool of Church or State or any sectoral interest.”
Using his expertise on the Philippine Constitution, Pangalangan emphasized that “academic freedom is just an extension of a larger freedom, which is freedom of speech.”
He then went on to mention Sections 4 and 5 of the Bill of Rights, stating that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…” and “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion,” respectively.
Speaking more on the issue of the RH bill, Racelis believed that there was a “disconnect between evidence-based understandings of society and the human body, and the public statements of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).”
She then cited the many discrepancies between what the CBCP said in its statements against the RH bill and what the actual provisions said, before summing up that the RH bill was “propoor, antiabortion… and prolife.”
Racelis also addressed the participants of the forum “to remind our legislators that they are not the representatives of the Catholic Church but of the people who voted for them.”
After the lecture of the professors from the three universities, UP student reactor Mickey Eva said students and professors alike “have the obligation to educate our fellow citizens [regarding current issues] as people in centers of learning institutions.”
Ateneo student reactor EG Velasco agreed that students should “involve ourselves in addressing these issues.”
Since the forum was attended by mostly supporters of the RH bill, Racelis proposed to conduct another gathering or dialogue in the near future, involving not only those people who were present during the UP forum but also the CBCP bishops and representatives of those who are against the RH bill.