In response to The Varsitarian

Dr. Jayeel Serrano Cornelio

Posted at Oct 09 2012 03:57 PM | Updated as of Oct 10 2012 05:18 PM

A recent editorial from The Varsitarian has effortlessly gone viral and it was meant to be.  Its opening lines are meant to provoke, thus ensuring a wide array of emotional response ranging from bitterness to utter helplessness.  


“Many Filipinos are abandoning religion,” so the editorial declares.  “They no longer see Catholicism, or any religion for that matter, as something relevant today.  They have become the ‘superior beings’ who ungratefully attack the Catholic Church…”  


Given the turn of events involving Senator Sotto, the coming elections, and the new cybercrime law, the legislative discussion over the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill has effectively been drowned out.  So advocates of the RH Bill must be thankful to commentaries such as above for resurrecting what could otherwise be a dormant issue yet again.  


But perhaps what has become problematic for many is how the debate has shifted from the merits of the Bill to, in a classic ad hominem fashion, the morality of its lobbyists.  In retaliation, some RH Bill supporters have accused the Catholic Church of being “medieval”, as if medieval thought was in itself simplistic.  


As a result, this dynamic has engendered an unnecessary opposition between the religious institution on one hand and the supporters of the RH Bill on the other.  On one side is the one and true “Catholic Church” and on the other is the not-so-Catholic supporters of the RH Bill.    


This unnecessary division, to me, has become the taken-for-granted assumption in many commentaries concerning the RH Bill – The Varsitarian included.  And its internal inconsistencies must be exposed.


Voices attacking the Bill have argued time and again that the Catholic Church has its official stand concerning contraception and its many other interrelated concerns.  True enough, the editorial above has appealed to the magisterium as the “teaching authority of the Catholic Church.”  Be that as it may, what does this narrow perspective make of alternative voices within the Catholic Church?


At one level, this pontification is blind to the long history of fragmentations within the Catholic Church.   As a social institution, the Catholic Church is composed of people with different attitudes and perspectives concerning various issues, doctrines, and theological persuasions.  From the point of view of sociology, my discipline, religious ideas are socially constructed.  As such, divergent nuances are to be expected.    


A sound commentary must be cognizant not just of the magisterial declarations but also of these divergences.  One historical fact downplayed in the RH debates is that the encyclical Humanae Vitae, employed by the anti-RH segment to counter artificial contraception, was based on a minority report emerging from the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in the 1960s.  Composed of Catholic lay and clergy, the majority of the members of the Commission submitted a separate report to the Pope welcoming some forms of contraception.  This clearly illustrates that even within the Catholic hierarchy divergences are in fact present.   


At another level, as a result of such blindness to alternative discourses within the Church, commentaries are quick to offer judgments of other people.  Supporters of the Bill, for example, have been accused of “dishonesty” and “cowardice”.  And the editorial above suggests that many Filipinos no longer see the relevance of religion today. Is this indeed the case for the 70% of Filipinos backing the RH Bill?  The International Social Survey (ISS) on religion shows that 87% of Filipinos describe themselves as “religious”.  This finding certainly flies in the face of the editorial’s unfounded claim.  


As a result, the rhetoric of some Church leaders against the RH Bill and the scathing remarks of the The Varsitarian have turned off many Catholics.  The blogosphere and social media sites reek of such bitterness.  And even in my own research among Filipino youth, not a few respondents have expressed being alienated by some of the Church leaders’ authoritarian stance on public matters.  Unfortunately, in the hope of rallying Catholic fervor and commitment to the religious institution, such discourses have engendered the exact opposite.  This can be explained by the ISS finding that 64% of Filipinos agree that “religious leaders should not influence government decisions.”  


Not many Catholics (or Filipinos for the matter) are abandoning their religion.  Instead, many Catholics are asserting their religion but in ways that do not necessarily satisfy the official stand of the religious hierarchy.  The professors of La Salle and the Ateneo, for example, have certainly crossed the line.  But they have done so with dignity through a careful reflection of the RH Bill in light of faith and reason.  And I am one of them.  Many of our students have followed suit in the same spirit.  For what it’s worth, the controversies surrounding the RH Bill, while alienating some, have certainly deepened the spirituality of others.   This clearly demonstrates that religion is not defined by homogeneity and the eternal return of the same.  


The task of any responsible commentator must seriously take into consideration these alternative voices.  Without such sense of responsibility, one is merely a provocateur.  And without realizing it, such provocateurs, in their sincere desire to uphold the integrity of the Catholic Church, are in the end misrepresenting it.    


The sharply edged Varsitarian editorial ends by suggesting that “it’s hard to be a Catholic today…To remain a Catholic, one must have the courage and the inner strength to endure criticisms and stand against the intellectually pretentious and the morally bankrupt.”  Kudos to the writer for his tenacity and dauntlessness.  These attributes he certainly shares with those on the other side of the fence.  


But to declare others to be intellectually pretentious and morally bankrupt?  That, to me, is the privilege of the One with infinite knowledge and wisdom.  Otherwise, the provocateur himself becomes pretentious.     



Dr Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany and visiting affiliate at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.  He is also assistant professor in the Development Studies Program and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University.  His forthcoming academic publications deal with the Filipino Catholic youth (Ashgate), Catholic priesthood (Religions), and contemporary religious change in the world (Praeger).