“GRAVELY mistaken.”

This was in essence the response of an international group of Catholic educators – which includes two Jesuits, two Dominicans, experts from the Jesuit-run Fordham University, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and others – to an Oct. 15 statement penned by 14 Ateneo de Manila professors that claimed Catholic teachings support the Reproductive Health Bill because it will ease poverty.

The open letter by 42 international experts also said it was also erroneous for the professors of the Jesuit university to claim that Catholics can support House Bill (HB) No. 5043 or the “Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008” in “good conscience” by citing Catholic social teachings.

On the contrary, “the primary provisions of the bill not only fail to recognize and support the dignity of the poor, but also stand in direct opposition to Catholic social teaching.”

They defended the Church’s strong stance against the bill, pointing out that the Catholic position is anchored on the “dignity of the poor,” and that the Church’s opposition to HB 5043 does not mean it does not care for their plight.

While acknowledging the country’s “high maternal mortality rates, inadequate and uneven provision of basic health care, lack of birth attendants, and lack of reproductive health information” which place an “undue burden on the poor,” the bill won’t really address poverty and seeks only to reduce the number of poor people.

“The bill focuses primarily on providing services to curb the number of children of the poor, while doing little to remedy their situation, provide necessary health care or establish the grounds for sound economic development,” the open letter said.

The 42 international experts argued that Church teachings “show how clear and unambiguous is the Church’s care for the dignity of the person, and in particular the poor, and how critical it is for us to heed her teachings in addressing the circumstances facing the Philippines today.”

“The Church does not hold these positions to punish the poor, but rather because she recognizes that the poor have the same inviolable dignity and rights that all human persons share. What the poor needs is not contraception and sterilization, but to experience authentic solidarity with those who, in responding to their innate dignity, work with the poor to enable them to develop their skills, improve their circumstances and cultivate lives that are marked by both interior and exterior freedom.”

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Three encyclicals

The 42 experts, who teach theology, philosophy, law, economics, political science, and demography, among others, hinged their rebuttal on three papal encyclicals.

The letter opened with a quote from the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), saying that “man precedes the state,” thus no man should be subjected to the state’s regulation of his private matters.

The bill has been criticized as its provisions state that two children are “ideal” for every couple and while it vows to promote both artificial and natural methods of family planning, the provisions and resources are biased for the former. It will also penalize those who spread “disinformation,” which experts say violates free speech, as well as the freedoms of religion and conscience.

The professors also cited Populorum Progressio (On the Development of People), which said that “those who propose solutions which violate man’s essential dignity base them on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and his life.”

Rerum Novarum was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 to discuss the stand of the Church on labor. Populorum Progressio, the encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1967, centers on the social teaching of the Church on the relation of economy and mankind.

The letter’s heftiest basis is Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI, which speaks of the Church’s stand concerning abortion, euthanasia, and other issues pertaining to life.

The 42 professors, in the open letter, reiterated that contraception and sterilization directly contradict the teaching of the Church, which treats them as “intrinsically evil.”

“It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong,” the paper read, quoting Humanae Vitae.

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The government should instead implement policies to directly help the poor earn a decent living.

“This places a much more radical demand on those of us to whom much has been given, that we must live and work with the poor in order to identify and enable the resources they require to live lives of authentic freedom,” the professors added, citing a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

The international educators, quoting Humanae Vitae, cautioned that the power of controlling reproduction and distributing contraceptives should not be given to “public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law.”

Church teachings “make it abundantly clear that no Catholic in good conscience can support Bill 5043. The bill violates the Church’s teachings in the gravest manner,” the letter read.

‘Weakest’ provisions

The 42 professors, though, noted two provisions that “should be applauded and expanded.”

“Both Section 6 and 7 (of the bill) call for the expansion of midwives and birth attendants, as well as greater access to obstetric care,” the letter read.

But the two sections are “the weakest in the bill,” they said.

While most of the proposals are mandatory, financially supported, and backed up by the creation of new government agencies to ensure implementation, the professors pointed out that Sections 6 (Midwives for Skilled Attendance) and 7 (Emergency Obstetric Care) are not mandatory and do not have logistical support or financing.

“This most important section of the bill — and the only section consistent with Catholic social teaching — has been entirely neglected in the allocation of the responsibilities,” the professors said.

Mistaken

Former senator Francisco Tatad said the 42 professors’ open letter presented the correct view of Catholic doctrine.

“If you are a Catholic academician and you see another Catholic educator professing the opposite of what the Church teaches, you have the responsibility of saying something in defense of the social teachings of Church,” Tatad told the Varsitarian in a phone interview.

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He described the stand of the 14 Ateneo professors as an “absolute disappointment” as it was a “misstatement of the Catholic doctrine and runs the opposite of the main teachings of the Church.”

The president of Ateneo de Manila, Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., himself rebuked the 14 Ateneo professors’ statement in a memo last Oct. 23, saying “As in all matters that are connected with faith and morals, the Ateneo de Manila, as a Jesuit and Catholic university, stands with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus.”

Nebres’s memo carried a summary of the 14 professors’ position paper for the entire university to read.

Gary Devilles, one of the 66 Ateneo professors who signed a declaration titled “A Call of Conscience: Catholics in Support of the RH Bill” last Oct.27 to support the 14 Ateneo professors’ position, said he believes that the bill is in line with the Catholic faith.

“It is not tantamount to practicing bad faith. There is a growing number of Ateneo faculty members who support the RH bill and we know that it is not anti-faith,” Devilles, who teaches at Ateneo’s Deprartment of Filipino said. “ADMU’s stand on the bill is pretty clear and we do not want the bill to be polarized as anti-Christ or anti-Catholic.”

Tatad posted the open letter of the 42 professors on his blog, saying “it is a bit strange that the media is not picking up even a single line.”

The signatories of the letter include among others Dominican priests Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P. of Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts and Fr. Basil Cole, O.P. Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.; Jesuit priests Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. of Fordham University and Fr. Earl Muller, S.J. of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan; Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University); Dermot Grenham (London School of Economics); Tom D’Andrea (Cambridge University); Aneta Gawkowska (University of Warsaw); Mary Keys, Gerard Bradley, Adrian Reimers and Daniel Philpott (University of Notre Dame); and Habib Malik (Lebanese American University).

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