Lost in Translation

Carolina Austria

The move to wider use of the Latin Mass represents a shift towards more conservative traditions in the Catholic church, which is at odds with changing Catholic views on reproductive health and rights.

When Pope Benedict XVI recently made his announcement about wider use of the Latin Mass, Catholics all over the world had a lot to talk about all over again. Many Catholics are worried, Bishops included, about what the move represents as a whole, apart from the alien language.

Local feminist, Ms. Rina Jimenez David wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

"Striking is the Pope's bending over backwards to accommodate the backsliding elements of the Church while remaining resolute in his refusal to meet with and engage in meaningful dialogue with other members of the flock: women and gays in particular. Ironically, scholars say the future of the Church lies precisely in the greater inclusion and involvement of these two sectors of the Catholic faithful."

Rina, a Catholic, recalls attending the Latin Mass as a child and the feeling of exclusion that comes from not being able to understand the mass. She also described the feeling of attending her first English/Filipino mass after Vatican II, calling it liberating and inclusive.

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In the Philippines, this announcement from Catholic officialdom also comes in the wake of recent guidelines by the Manila Archdioscese regarding "dress codes," for churchgoers.

The dress code applies to women and men, but reactions from conservative Catholics confirm that it tends to be used against women, particularly those purportedly baring "too much" by wearing sleeveless blouses, shorts or mini-skirts, not to mention "plunging necklines."

The "code" of course is a guideline and not a "rule," which even according to the Assistant Minister of the archdiocese, Father Godwin Tatlonghari, will not include a punishment for "violators."

Meanwhile another Catholic priest who writes for the Daily Tribune dared ask:

"Are we retracing the medieval times when the poor and un-attired are relegated to the back pews or even outside the church doors, while the nobles in their proper royal attires are singing the Kyrie Eleison in Gregorian chants, while the marginalized are mumbling their own personal prayers and intentions.(?)"

While certainly these issuances aren't harsh rules by themselves, they nonetheless constitute another case of "line-drawing," familiar in the Catholic Church's recent history.

For local advocates promoting reproductive health policy, facing the ire of the conservative Catholic hierarchy isn't anything new.

Up until recently, only a few have willingly engaged the often-ticklish issue of Catholic "faith and morality," choosing instead to find allies within more liberal, accommodating religions or steer clear of religion altogether.

With just a few days before the newly elected 14th Congress' opening session, Atty. Claire Angeline V. Luczon, Chairperson of the Legal Committee of the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network (RHAN), also Catholic, is concerned that the reproductive health bill might once more be singled out by the President again with a threat to veto the bill, if it gets passed:

"The problem isn't that there are conservative elements of the Catholic Church who have always been opposed to family planning and now to reproductive health and women's health agendas, but rather missing out that many Catholics have different positions about these issues too."

Lamenting how local media always pits "the reproductive health advocates" and "Catholics" against each other, she notes that framing the issue this way never leads to enlightening exchanges.

A case in point is the controversial issue of clandestine abortion in the Philippines. "Everyday, we see how media sensationalizes unsafe abortion and continues to treat it as a fire and brimstone issue instead of a danger to women's health and lives," adds Luczon.

The draft bill on reproductive health (PDF), which has never carried a provision to legalize abortion and only provides humane treatment of women seeking post abortion care (whether intentional or unintentional), continues to be portrayed as promoting abortion. This has managed to keep away a number of politicians who fear the ire of the Catholic hierarchy.

Alongside issues like divorce and homosexuality, abortion continues to be presented as a black and white issue to Catholics by the conservative hierarchy.

Elsewhere, countries with Catholic majorities have opened up to more complex views about abortion. Mexico City passed legislation this year removing criminal liability in cases of abortion within the first trimester. In 2002, the Mexican Supreme Court upheld the legality of abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the health and life of women. This also happened in 2006 in Colombia through the case filed by Monica Roa.

"Once Catholics entered into the mystery of the Mass as literate participants instead of as dumb spectators, an unprecedented renewal took hold", wrote James Caroll of the Boston Globe. But Catholics who disagree with the hierarchy also know that coming to terms with reproductive rights further requires the compassionate recognition of women as fully capable moral agents.

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