AN appeal based on liberation theology is among the least likely to convince the mostly conservative bishops of the Catholic Church to end their campaign against the Reproductive Health bills now pending in Congress. (The Senate version is SB 2865, “An act providing for a national policy on reproductive health and population and development.” Currently being debated is the House of Representatives version, HB 4244.)

In Part 1 (is there a Part 2?) of her sponsorship speech for SB 2865, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago initially described reproductive health as “a non-issue” in the context of the more urgent problems the Philippines has. But she later argued that a reproductive health law is needed to liberate the poor from social injustice. In her effort to convince the bishops that rather than opposing the RH bills they should instead support it, Santiago described the passage of SB 2865 as in conformity with liberation theology. “The RH bill,” said Santiago, “is an enterprise in social justice and in love for the poor.”

Although its themes are rooted in the thinking of certain European theologians, liberation theology developed in Latin America in the 1960s in response to the poverty, injustice, oppression and violence that characterized the lives of the majority, to which the Church had contributed through its collaboration with local elites and the colonial and imperialist powers.

Santiago quoted the Peruvian Dominican priest and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “the father of liberation theology” as declaring that “the Church should be a place of liberation where there is a break from an unjust social order” rather than remaining part of that order.

“In the Philippines,” continued Santiago, “the Church must take a clear stand against social injustice. In all humility, I dare to echo the call of liberation theology: the first step in abolishing injustice is to recognize how much the Church itself is tied to the unjust system that oppresses the very poor.”

Santiago’s description of liberation theology as a “specie” of progressive theology is accurate, but the leap of logic she makes to link the passage of an RH bill to liberation theology is dubious at best.

Her statements assume, in the first place, that an RH bill would be expressive of the “preferential option for the poor” that since the 1960s has been a major theme of the liberation theologians’ mobilization of Church and laity against the reality of poverty and oppression in societies divided between rich and poor.

Rather than in such palliatives as a reproductive health bill, that preference has primarily been expressed in changing the unjust structures — political, economic and social — that characterize the poorest countries of the world. As Santiago herself noted, “Liberation theology aims to transform the world, following the famous dictum of Karl Marx that the task of philosophy is not (merely) to understand the world, but to change the world.”

A reproductive health law would neither assure citizens greater participation in decision-making, more equitably distribute wealth, or, despite its focus on health, assure social justice and equality, or even guarantee access to social services. What it would make possible, assuming it emerges from the Congressional mill as intended by its sponsors, and is properly implemented, is a reduction in the maternal and infant deaths that have savaged the poorest of the poor in this country due to, among other reasons, lack of information on reproductive health. In the Philippine context, only the possibility rather than its certainty must be emphasized, given how even the most well-crafted and well-meaning bills are mangled in Congress and/or perverted in practice.

But Santiago seems to assume that beyond these limited possibilities, a reproductive health law would end poverty and achieve social justice in obedience to the demands of liberation theology. Liberation theology emphasizes that the poverty and injustice resident in such societies as those of Latin America and that of the Philippines are rooted in the political, economic and social structures themselves. It’s a formulation that leads to the imperative of “changing the world” — i.e., in changing those structures to enable the citizenry itself to make the decisions vital to its well-being, to restructure the economy, and, as a consequence, society itself.

Liberation theology has also taken note of the collaboration between local elites and imperialism, to such an extent that, as the noted linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the US and its local agents attacked its proponents in the 1970s and ‘80s. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, for example, was killed while saying mass in March, 1980 during the reign of the US- supported military dictatorship in that country for his opposition to the regime.

As a consequence of its demand for structural change rather than mere palliatives, the institutional Church took a dim view of liberation theology, and Pope John Paul II, out of fear that the Church was becoming more and more politicized, shut down its own institutions that were teaching liberation theology, rebuked its proponents, and rejected the argument that the Church should be biased for the poor.

In this he had the help of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Inquisition in less politically correct times). Cardinal Ratzinger has since become Pope Benedict XVI, in which capacity he has repeatedly inveighed against liberation theology, describing it as “divisive” and heavily influenced by Marxist ideas.

In the Philippines liberation theology never took hold in the hierarchy, although it did not lack for adherents among the rank and file clergy, and gave rise to the founding of the National Democratic Front-affiliated Christians for National Liberation during the martial law period.

Although some seem to have been influenced by liberation theology, especially because of its relevance and significance as an alternative to supporting the dictatorship, or merely remaining silent during the martial law period, few if any among the bishops can be described as being in the same mold as Romero, and Santiago might as well have been talking to a brick wall when she appealed to the bishops, on the supposed basis of liberation theology, to end their opposition to the reproductive health bills.

The bishops of the Philippines as a community have always been part of the power elite, and are as much into liberation theology as Santiago herself is into the clerical activism and egalitarian ethic she implied she favored. After all, this is one senator who has numerous times in the past indicated that being a senator entitles her to insult and belittle anyone she considers below her, as well as to bow before anyone above, among them the bishops of this troubled and troubling land. It makes perverse sense for her to be citing liberation theology in a country where hierarchies whether political, economic, social or religious rule.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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