Saturday, October 23, 2010

Religion and theRH Bills

Let me get back to religion in the RH Bills because it is mainly religion which is causing much of the disagreement.

There are two clauses in the Constitution dealing with religion: the non-establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

The non-establishment clause is a command which says that the state may not choose any religion as the dominant religion. (Incidentally, as I have often pointed out, this command is addressed to the state and not to churches.)

The free exercise clause means more than just the freedom to believe. It also means the freedom to act or not to act according to what one believes. And this freedom is violated when one is compelled to act against one’s belief or is prevented from acting according to one’s belief.

In our society, while people of good faith may find near unanimity on the matter of abortion as defined in the Penal Code, there clearly is sharp division in the matter of contraception. The division is drawn largely along religious lines. The official Catholic teaching, for instance, is that only natural family planning is allowed, even if I am aware that many Catholics do not follow this teaching. The religion of many non-Catholics, however, prescribes a different set of rules on sexual morality. And, as much as Catholics, they too have the right of moral equality and moral freedom under our democratic system.

At the moment the government, under the supervision of the Department of Health, makes contraceptive pills and devises available without distinction as to whether those who avail of them are Catholics or non-Catholics. We are assured by the Palace that the President is firm in his decision not to stop what the Department of Health is doing. The President recognizes the right of everyone to exercise responsible parenthood in accordance with their moral beliefs. Clearly, the President may not, on religious grounds, stop people from acting according to their moral belief if their acts are neither prohibited by law nor harmful to public welfare. I would also add that the President is not defying Catholic teaching because Catholic teaching, for a pluralist society, requires that government interpret the common good of the country not only according to the guidelines of whatever religion may be the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including those belonging to minority religions. For that reason it is good that the President has invited other religions to the dialogue.

(I understand, however, that since there is as yet no law on the subject, some local officials do not allow local offices to dispense contraceptive devises.)

In analyzing the RH Bills we have to ask if they contain provisions which have the effect of requiring persons to act against their religious or moral belief. The law would be particularly harsh if it carries administrative or criminal penalties. It would almost amount to religious persecution by the government. If there are such offending provisions, I propose that remedies be incorporated that will allow freedom of action to one who objects on the basis of personal conscience.

I make special mention of any provision which punishes those who disagree with or campaign against provisions they do not agree with. Such provision would smack of dictatorship which has no place in our democratic system.

I also make mention of the requirement of sex education. Sex education is a matter closely related to religious morality. Our Constitution allows the teaching of religion to children in public schools, but it requires that it be done only with the written consent of parents. A similar respect for the desire of parents should be provided for in the reproductive health law. Our Constitution says: “The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support of the Government.”

As for sex education in private schools, any law on this should respect academic freedom which is also protected by the Constitution.

I have also scanned the penal provisions of the proposed law. My initial impression is that, if passed, they will encounter problems in implementation along lines of criminal due process. Government cannot dictate what is morally right anymore than it can dictate what is religiously acceptable, except to the extent needed to protect life, health and security of citizens or to safeguard compelling state interests.

It might be argued that, while all this is based on the equality of human beings, the fact is that humans are unequal in almost every dimension – physically, intellectually, and morally. But experience tells us that regimes which do not honor the equality of persons become oppressive and end up imposing untold suffering on people.

Finally, it is important to recall that, while adherence to religious liberty is theologically founded and ecumenical, theology is not the only reason for adherence to the principle. There are additional reasons. In fact it has been said that Vatician II’s affirmation of religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae was as much motivated by historical experience as by theology. We who have not experienced massive religious persecution must learn from the lessons of history.

25 October 2010

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