Column: Expelling Catholics

Published on November 4, 2008

I received a forwarded email on Sunday purporting to explain “why being Catholic is not compatible with being pro-RH bill (contrary to the claim of 14 Atenean professors).” I was struck by the opening argument of the letter-writer, which described a false analogy. Call it misleading absolutism.

“To be an Atenean, a student must abide by the rules and regulations of the school, otherwise, Ateneo may expel any student found guilty of violating these, especially the major ones. It is unfortunate that 14 professors of the Ateneo do not apply the same principle to the Catholic Church.”

The analogy is false, because the professors did not in fact violate “the rules and regulations” of the Church in prayerfully discerning their position on the issue, and then acting on it. In fact, as even a cursory reading of the professors’ 16-page statement would show, they took extra pains to ground their reasoning on Church principles.

There is the appeal to Catholic social teaching, repeated throughout the statement but summed up (helpfully enough, for those who can afford only a cursory look) in the statement’s very first paragraph: “We also believe that the provisions of the bill adhere to core principles of Catholic social teaching: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, integral human development, human rights, and the primacy of conscience.” Citations are provided in the statement (we are talking about academics, after all), but in my view the use of the “core principles” flows out of the discussion and follows the statement’s logic; they are not an add-on, like a shield.

There is also the appeal to the right to information which the Church has come to recognize. “One human right that has received abundant attention in Catholic social teachings is the right to be informed and to form opinions. The Second Vatican Council and the popes since Pope John XXIII have all stressed this right to information as essential for the individual and for society in general. In Pacem in Terris (1963), Pope John XXIII says, ‘[Man] has a right to freedom in investigating the truth’ (no. 12) … Pope John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus (1991), likewise calls attention to ‘the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth’ (no. 47).”

In exercising their freedom to investigate the truth, in developing their intelligence to seek and know it, the professors show all Catholics what it means to live one’s faith in all its dimensions. Think of it this way: The two greatest popes of the 20th century lit the path; the professors are merely walking in it.

* * *

Why would the letter-writer think the professors (I understand the number of signatories has since grown, to almost 70) guilty of violating Church rules? Only one real answer is possible. Because they reached a different conclusion—different, that is, from the conclusion of many bishops, religious and Church organizations, a conclusion I assume the letter-writer shares, that House Bill 5043, the Reproductive Health and Population Development Bill, is downright immoral.

The letter-writer asserts that the professors “arbitrarily proclaim that one can still be a Catholic even if one does not obey her moral teachings.” But it is in fact precisely because of their obedience to the Church’s moral teachings that they struggled with the issue and, by their best lights, reached their conclusion. The Church I know is a font of tolerance: It accepts the very real possibility that men and women of good will may find themselves on different sides of an issue.

An issue, not an article of faith. A Catholic who does not believe, say, in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ may be ardent and devout, but he is no Catholic. On issues like the death penalty, however, or nuclear power or, indeed, on reproductive health, Catholics can disagree. May I refer the letter-writer to the Church doctrine of probabilism?

* * *

I realize that the president of the Ateneo de Manila University (it is best to use the full name; there are four other Ateneo schools in the country, and in the old days there used to be even more) issued a clarification soon after the professors’ statement came out.  In a letter to Archbishop Angel “time to prepare a new government is now” Lagdameo, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Fr. Bienvenido Nebres SJ clarified, among other things, that “the Ateneo de Manila University does not agree with [the professors’] position of supporting the present bill. As I said in my letter of October 2 to Archbishop Aniceto and Bishop Reyes, it is ‘the considered opinion of our moral theologians that, although there are points wherein the aforesaid bill and the Catholic moral tradition are in agreement, there are certain positions and provisions in the bill which are incompatible with principles and specific positions of moral teaching which the Catholic Church has held and continues to hold.’”

At the same time, Nebres also took pains to state: “We appreciate [their] efforts … to grapple with serious social issues and to draw from Catholic moral teaching in their study of the bill.” And: “We acknowledge their right to express their views as individual Catholics and appreciate their clear statement that their views are their own and not that of the university.”

I cannot see why the letter-writer, or anyone else, would suggest “expulsion” or its equivalent is appropriate.

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2 responses to “Column: Expelling Catholics

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