The Absolute and the Relative: or a Response to Conversing with a Bishop

In his article “Conversing with a Bishop” Fr. Joaquin Bernas brought up three “points for dialogue”. The way I understood his article it would seem that he simply argued against those points presented by Bishop Gabriel Reyes.

My purpose here is to bring out the implications of his arguments.

Fr. Bernas wrote:  “First, on easy availability of contraceptives in drugstores. The clear implication is that the world is free and anyone can buy these. This is simply not true. Only those who have the money can buy them. Legislators, however, are thinking of the vast majority of poor people who need help to be able to practice responsible parenthood.”

Fr. Bernas seems to have made an absolute statement: “This is simply not true.” There seems to be no room for disagreement with him. How can we dialogue with a person with a mindset that leads one to make such dogmatic statements? He could have said, “This may not be true sometimes.” That would have been more acceptable. Making such an absolute statement has the semblance of wrong reasoning because we cannot make absolute assertions about matters that can be proven false. We know for a fact that even poor people can find a way to buy a cell phone. Can’t they find a way to buy contraceptives if they wanted to?

Fr. Bernas is also implying that we can help the poor people by informing them about pills and condoms and making them available for them even gratis. Let’s think a little. Is really the way to help them? Imagine yourself as a health worker going to a poor family and extending to them a pack of pills “to help them”. Doesn’t that seem incongruous to the point of being absurd? What these people need is food and clothes. I would hint to them to get the pills and sell them to the women who need them for therapeutic reasons and get the condoms and blow them into toy balloons to sell them, so they can eat. Then I would inform them about Natural Family Planning.

Next point: “One must distinguish between tax money and donated money. The use of donated money is limited by intentio  dantis  or the intention of the donor. Tax money, on the other hand, can be used for any legitimate public purpose authorized by Congress. Tax money has no religious face. Whether or not its use is licit can ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.”

The implication of this statement is: whatever Congress decides is okay, whatever Supreme Court decides is okay. Any reasonable person will see that these implications are not right. Congress makes mistakes. Supreme Court makes mistakes. And many people know they have made mistakes. It does not take a genius to figure that out.

Fr. Bernas is a lawyer and it seems that his “legalistic” mind has overshadowed his “moral” mind. Legality is not the same are morality. If we disregard morality, what is truly upright, and just stick to legalisms, the result will be anything is okay and might is right.

Third point: “And it is not flippant to say that many serious thinkers have also studied the human person and have not arrived at the conclusion that contraception is evil. Serious thinkers of other religions have not arrived at such conclusion and for that reason the various religions in the Philippines are not of one mind on the subject.”

Given the flaws in thought that I pointed out in the two previous points, we can draw the implication that the quality of thinking of our author is not flawless. And so when he considers certain authors as “serious thinkers” there is a shade of doubt about whether these authors are really serious thinkers. It might be fortunate for these authors that their names were not mentioned.

To conclude: “I believe that the bishop’s view is a very narrow understanding of the pluralism which is part of our constitutional system. Pluralism, which flows from freedom of religion, is not just about the plurality of theistic religions. Neither is it merely a matter of which God or god to worship.  Constitutionally protected pluralism includes nontheistic religions such as Buddhism, ethical culture, secular humanism and a variety of ethical philosophies. Of course, it also includes the bishop’s understanding of natural law. But his understanding is just one of the many, including those which do not arrive at the bishop’s conclusion.”

Fr. Bernas understands pluralism to mean: “anything goes”. Believe what you want. Do what you want. And we will all respect that and tolerate that. Just don’t listen to the Catholics when they say contraception is evil. We can tolerate anything except when Catholics do not want us to use the pill. What he calls pluralism is really relativism. True and legitimate pluralism means the freedom to exercise ritual, spiritual, cultural and charitable activities within the boundaries of justice, truth and the common good. It is not the license to do and think anything you want.

His relativism is also patent in his comments about natural law as belonging only to certain persons or minds.

I do not wish to judge Fr. Bernas as a person, priest or lawyer. Only God can judge persons. I just wanted to draw the implications of his statements and the flaws I could find in them.



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