MANILA, Philippines – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) yesterday declared a unilateral “ceasefire” by momentarily keeping a vow of silence and not issuing “incendiary statements” in an attempt to defuse the growing Church-government row over contraceptives.
Malacañang spokesman Edwin Lacierda, however, said that the Aquino administration will not back down on its pro-choice stand on the reproductive health issue and will seriously push for responsible parenthood as a means of family planning.
Fr. Melvin Castro, CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life (ECFL) executive secretary, said the Church is complying with the request of Malacañang that “we should have a ceasefire so everyone would calm down.”
“We are acceding to the request of the President and would not issue unnecessary statements until we would have a face-to-face dialogue, the bishops with the President. We are respecting that request,” said Castro, adding he believes that it will also be good for the public that “during this moment of silence we would study all the issues.”
“He is the President so we respect his call to have a moment of reflection and assessment,” he said, but clarified that their silence “does not mean that the Church is compromising.”
“It simply means that it is good that there is this lull moment, to pause, to assess things and to pray and hope for a genuine dialogue,” he said.
However, he emphasized that they would not stop lay groups who had earlier announced plans to hold protest actions over President Aquino’s pronouncement to push for the distribution of artificial contraceptives to couples who want to use them.
“As I have said, we respect our laity. They will pursue what the initiatives they think are best but the Church leaders would accede to the request of the President, to avoid unnecessary public sentiments so as to not confuse the public, without prejudice to the right of the laity to pursue the initiatives that they have started,” Castro added.
The CBCP official said that whether or not the bishops and the priests would be physically present in the protest, he assured the laity that the Church leaders are totally supportive of their cause.
“The leaders are silent but strongly supporting them,” he said.
But he also expressed belief that even the laity groups would wait for the outcome of the dialogue before launching any demonstration.
Besides, he said it seemed that the organizers of the lay groups protesting against the Reproductive Health (RH) bill and distribution of contraceptives are still in the process of networking with other groups.
“The idea is to fully network everyone, fully assess everything but the very good thing is it is no longer a Catholic issue. Muslim and different Christian churches are with the Catholic Church in this issue. So we are still increasing our numbers, in the sense that the action would be cohesive at the proper time,” Castro added.
Palace won’t budge
But Malacañang said President Aquino won’t be trapped in the popularity ratings game and that it will not be a reason for the Aquino administration to back down on its pro-choice stand when it comes to the highly sensitive reproductive health issue.
“He (Aquino) said he will do his job regardless of what other people, the pundits, would have to say. He will do his job as President. It’s (popularity ratings) a non-issue for him,” Lacierda said.
Compared to his predecessors, including his late mother Cory, who all caved in to pressure from the Catholic Church, this administration “is serious in pushing for its policy to advocate responsible parenthood for couples as a means of family planning.”
“We are serious in pushing for responsible parenthood. There is a big difference. The President’s position is very clear (compared to past presidents). That’s the clearest message coming from a President, bar none,” he said.
The President’s pro-choice stand has been consistent, even during the campaign period.
Lacierda added that Mr. Aquino will designate a member of his Cabinet who will meet with the CBCP, and clarified that he would not want to preempt the President if he would attend the meeting.
“It depends on his schedule. His attendance would depend on his schedule,” he said, clarifying that Mr. Aquino is not taking the issue for granted, but pointed out there’s a need to arrange his schedule.
“It does not diminish the fact that he regards the dialogue with importance,” Lacierda explained. “We are going to inform the bishops, because there have been misconceptions as some claim that the President is pro-abortion.”
“That’s (pro-abortion stand) not true, it’s against the Constitution and the revised penal code,” he added.
“We are calling for sobriety. They are coming from another spectrum so it’s good to have a dialogue. We are calling on all parties to be sober in their statements.”
Lacierda reiterated the Feb. 25 invitation the President sent to the CBCP for a dialogue over the same issue when he was still a presidential candidate and standard-bearer of the Liberal Party.
“We were the first ones to ask for dialogue. We never got a response. Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales invited us to attend the red Mass. That’s the only extent of our communication with them,” he said.
Lacierda pointed out that Mr. Aquino was elected by at least 16 million Filipinos, who all know his pro-choice stand from the very beginning, which could somehow explain why Malacañang is not likely to change its stand.
He said he is of the same belief that most Filipinos have the same advocacy that the President has, based on the 69 percent survey among Catholics who favor the RH bill and approve of the family planning method.
Sotto: Clergy too pious for their own good
Meanwhile, several senators said that while the Catholic Church has a right to issue statements about civil disobedience to protest the passage of the RH Bill, they should always remain sober.
Sen. Franklin Drilon reiterated that threats and intimidation have no place in a national debate on a critical issue and that “civil disobedience is uncalled for.”
“Let us be rational about this debate. I am sure that all of us have the interest of the country at heart. Threats of disobedience have no place in this debate,” Drilon said.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said that the call for civil disobedience is the prerogative of the Church but believes that this and some threats of excommunication were too harsh.
He said that the clergy should keep an open mind on the issue in the sense that the proposed law could end up being just a way to improve reproductive health and not promote methods on population control.
“If it touches on population control then I am against it,” Sotto said. “But for some members of the Church to call for civil disobedience this early was a bit too harsh.”
Sotto also took a shot at the clergy for being too pious for their own good.
He surmised that not all of the priests were able to make it to heaven in the past 100 years so it would be prudent for them to be a little less arrogant.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, for his part, said that passions cannot be avoided on sensitive issues such as the proposed RH law.
He said that the priests can shout to high heavens against the RH bill but should leave it at that.
“What I said is we should not lose our heads. We debate, we discuss, but we maintain our sense of balance,” Enrile said.
He said that he personally has not made up his mind about the use of contraceptives so he would welcome debates on this issue.
“I have to study it very carefully. It involves my faith, concept of morality, notion of what the society ought to be so I want to be prepared to answer that question because I have not made up my mind.”
All three senators gave assurance that the bill would be tackled once it reaches the Senate.
A House divided
At the House of Representatives, Bacolod City Rep. Anthony Golez said the contentious RH bill would gain popular support if its proponents would remove provisions that encourage abortion.
Golez, who is also a medical doctor, said he fully agrees with the objectives of the RH bill, especially on reducing maternal and infant deaths.
He, however, said that most of the RH measures pending in Congress propose the provision of RH services to the poor that can be considered as abortifacients, like IUD and morning-after pills.
“A lot of comments have been given by lawmakers but we seldom hear from medical scientists and doctors. So before this is tackled in Congress, there must be a discussion on when life begins. A majority of doctors believe that life begins at fertilization,” Golez said.
“Before we give options, we must make sure they’re legal and safe,” he said, adding that the medical community must say first whether these services are abortifacients or not.
He said IUDs, oral contraceptive pills, and morning-after pills are abortifacients as they kill fertilized ovum.
Iloilo Rep. Janet Garin, a staunch proponent of the RH bill, said she was willing to compromise and remove such services.
“But I hope that those who have this view would support the bill in the end,” Garin said, adding in the past, they have been making compromises sought by its opponents but in the end they still refuse to support the measure.
Diwa party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay, on the other hand, expressed support for the RH bill “because it protects our right to health, informed choice, reproductive self-determination and sustainable human development.”
“The RH bill is not anti-life, nor does it promote abortifacients and is about time that we have a national policy on reproductive health,” she said
Evelyn Macairan, Philippine Star