The Colors of Sexual Ethics

Carolina Austria

The Philippine media is creating a false “Catholics vs. Reproductive Health” debate that doesn't stand up to the diversity within Catholic beliefs—including support for modern methods of family planning.

Editor's note: Correction Appended: April 25, 2007.

Ang Ladlad didn't want blood, but they turned the Commission on Elections' (COMELEC) grounds pink last Friday the 13th, exactly a week after Good Friday.

Supporters of the only Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender political party, Ang Ladlad (which literally means "Open" or "Unfurled") whose bid for Party list representation was rejected by COMELEC, came out in protest. COMELEC ruled that Ladlad's community and supporters were phantoms, non-existent and therefore not entitled to political representation.

Danton Remoto (who is still running independently in the third district of Quezon City), like many Filipinos, is Catholic. He is a Professor of English at the Jesuit run Ateneo de Manila University. He is also openly gay.

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Indeed, in real life, sex and religion (even Catholicism) often exist side by side, played out not in warring opposition but rather as parts of a complex whole. In this case, Danton, a gay Catholic very much comfortable with his sexuality, has also elsewhere expressed similar confidence with his Catholic identity.

Filipino Catholics, no different from Catholics elsewhere in the world, have expressed alternative views on modern contraception which can be considered at odds with "official Catholic teaching." The Pulse Asia Survey confirmed this when it showed that nine out of 10 Filipinos agree with the use of modern methods of family planning.

Meanwhile, if one were to rely solely on the media for its depiction of Philippine politics behind sexuality and reproductive health and rights, you would get an entirely different picture. No, it wouldn't be anything like the LBGT rainbow. It wouldn't even be pink. It is and has been for many years only black and white—with Catholicism supposedly on one side and a cacophony of "others" (e.g. feminists, gays, population control pundits and the erstwhile "immoral") on the other side.

Tempting as it was to join the fray and once more "hit" the Philippine Catholic hierarchy about its alleged letter instructing the Filipino Catholic faithful not to vote for "pro-reproductive health" candidates, I got curious and looked around.

In a widely circulated article among RH advocates, people were reacting to the "10 commandments for responsible voting" which basically warned Catholic faithful against voting for those with positive positions on issues such as modern contraceptives, divorce and homosexuality among others.

Unfortunately, the PPCRV's separate ten commandments for responsible voting, as it turns out, echoes the Catholic tradition of faith based on conscience and begins with: "1. Thou shalt vote according to the dictate of your conscience" did not garner media attention.

Nowhere in those commandments is specific mention of divorce, reproductive health or homosexuality—issues which the "pro-life" version highlighted. While the PPCRV website does provide a link to the Pro-Life Philippines version of the ten commandments for responsible voting, it has its own set of commandments which merits looking into.

In fact, Reproductive Health Advocacy Secretary General, Gladdys Malayang pointed out:

There isn't any overt reference to reproductive health policies, although it can be argued that under Catholic teaching, reproductive health is part of "candidates living an immoral life." It apparently leaves room for interpretation, but the underlying principles place a Catholic brand on the statement.

Therein of course lies the rub. While the Pro-Life sentiment certainly, as acknowledged by RHAN, comes from existing Catholic teaching on the matter of sexuality, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is the only Catholic position. For that matter, it certainly isn't the one supported by most Catholic theologians who write about sexual morality.

Charles Curran, a well known Catholic theologian in fact once wrote: "The vast majority of Catholic theologians writing about sexual morality have challenged the basis for the church's official teaching" (Christian Century, December 16, 1987). Curran further explained that the reason why there is much debate around current Catholic teaching about sexual ethics even among theologians is because "sexual ethics was not touched by the great changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council."

Everywhere in the world, the usual Catholic position on issues such as the environment, global trade and economics, as well as struggles against totalitarian states, reveal a more familiarly democratic, egalitarian and libertarian sense about them—but somehow in contrast, its teachings about sexuality appear archaic, and at times, downright sexist.

Another theologian, Daniel Maguire specifically points out that:

In the technical terms of Catholic moral theology, the moral permissibility of artificial contraception and voluntary abortion is a "solidly probable opinion," i.e., one that all Catholics may follow in good conscience. Contraception is not only legal but may often be morally mandatory. Likewise, the choice of an abortion—a choice that, ironically, becomes more necessary when artificial contraception is banned—is a moral option for women in many circumstances. That is common teaching among Catholic and Protestant moral theologians. (Poverty, Population and the Catholic Tradition, 1993)

Theologians note that, when it comes to Catholic teaching (as opposed to Dogma), there is room enough to differ and dissent, and to do so would not be a valid ground for excommunication.

But it isn't only in the Philippines where Catholic differences are rarely, if not at all ever highlighted. Maguire himself noted "When I published an article on this history two years ago in The New York Times, the editors mentioned that they were completely unaware of these subtleties in the Catholic tradition."

On the other hand it only goes to show how powerful the media has become in coloring dominant perceptions about institutional views on sexual morality. However, when we buy into this framework, we paint ourselves into a corner.

"Philippine Media land" seems even farther away than Neverland. Blind to Catholic diversity staring it in the face, local media often depicts the debate about reproductive health as a war between Catholics against all "Others." YouTube video features Gay Catholic Congressional Candidate, Prof. Danton Remoto telling the COMELEC: "We are not phantoms!"

Editor's note: Carolina Ruiz-Austria has issued a correction. The GMA News article links to the Manila Archdiocese and not to the PPCRV; GMA likewise did not attribute the "Pro-Life" ten commandments to the PPCRV — it is the Manila Archdiocese website that provided these links.

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