Column: Supporting the Ateneo professors

Published on August 28, 2012.

The misreading of the memo that Ateneo de Manila University president Fr. Jett Villarin wrote to his university community on the vexing issue of the Reproductive Health bill was both unfortunate and immediate. The original story that appeared in the Inquirer completely misunderstood the import of the memo, or the effect it had on the professors who wrote an impassioned, rigorously argued statement in support of the bill; as a result, a good number of readers thought that the Jesuits had thrown the professors to the dogs.

As I began to hear from some of the professors the day the story came out, the real problem was the lead (which was linked to the almost-equally-problematic kicker, or subhead): “Faculty members who are facing possible charges of heresy for supporting a population control bill aren’t getting any sympathy from Ateneo de Manila University.” The subhead read: “Jesuit university affirms stand as professors face heresy charges.”

In fact, there are no heresy charges—only the implied threat of one, made by someone who has no authority over the university. (This became much clearer in a follow-up story which appeared three days after the first one.) And, in fact, many of the pro-RH professors found the memo very sympathetic indeed.

* * *

The memo, dated Aug. 20, is short enough to be read in a minute or two:

Together with our leaders in the Catholic Church, the Ateneo de Manila University does not support the passage of House Bill 4244 (The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Bill). As many of these leaders have pointed out, the present form of the proposed bill contains provisions that could be construed to threaten constitutional rights as well as to weaken commonly shared human and spiritual values.

Now that the period for amendments is about to begin, I enjoin all in the Ateneo community to continue in-depth study of the present bill, and to support amendments to remove provisions that could be ambiguous or inimical from a legal, moral or religious perspective.

In connection with this, I call attention to the 192 members of our faculty who have grappled with the underlying issues in the context of Catholic social teaching, and who have spoken in their own voice in support of the bill. Though the University must differ from their position for the reasons stated above, I appreciate their social compassion and intellectual efforts, and urge them to continue in their discernment of the common good. As there is a spectrum of views on this ethical and public policy issue, I ask all those who are engaged in the Christian formation of our students to ensure that the Catholic position on this matter continues to be taught in our classes, as we have always done.

Should the bill with whatever amendments be passed, we should neither hesitate to bring to the judiciary whatever legal questions we may have nor cease to be vigilant in ensuring that no coercion takes place in implementation.

If there is no easy answer to the concerns that the proposed bill raises or no facile unanimity among divergent views, this only proves the complexity, depth, and sensitivity of these concerns. Nevertheless, Catholic tradition has always taught that reason and faith are not enemies but allies in the service of God’s truth.  From this tradition, we can draw strength and compassion in our often tortuous journey as persons in community toward the greater glory of God and the service of God’s people.

Jose Ramon T Villarin SJ

President

* * *

This seems to me to be a successful attempt to walk a fine line between acting “together with our leaders in the Catholic Church” and supporting the “social compassion and intellectual efforts” of the university faculty. The scale of the problem is manifest; any university that is Catholic in character must come to terms with the “Catholic tradition [that] has always taught that reason and faith are not enemies but allies in the service of God’s truth.” Nothing in the memo suggests that the Ateneo de Manila was unsympathetic to the professors and their attempt (“in our often tortuous journey as persons in community”) to reconcile faith and reason.

Indeed, the memo from Father Jett (full disclosure: we were classmates in some courses in Philosophy back in the day, and it was a privilege of mine to undertake my comprehensives in the same year that he and many other good Jesuit friends did) may be best considered as an evolution in the response of the university; in 2008, after the first manifesto of the original group of pro-RH professors saw light, the university president at the time, Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, also issued walk-the-fine-line statements.

The difference this year is that the memo can also be understood as signaling support for the constructive engagement approach espoused by Jesuit priests Joaquin Bernas and John Carroll: namely, to “continue in-depth study” of and to “support amendments” to the bill. That, and the language of faith and reason, made the memo an advance on the previous position.

In general terms—and here I use again Vergel Santos’ helpful anatomy of journalistic narrative—there are essentially two kinds of stories: the visual (based on news that sources had seen or experienced, such as a traffic accident or a state funeral) and the verbal (based on newsworthy documents, such as tax returns or a diplomatic communiqué).

Villarin’s memo was preeminently a story of the second kind, and needed the same approach to parsing, the same attention to both detail and context.

 

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