The Bishops Do Not Speak for All Catholics

Last week, members of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, and pro-choice organizations invited me to speak at a meeting in Dublin. The meeting came as parliament was in the midst of debates over a small change to the law, one that would allow women whose lives are at risk as a result of pregnancy to access an abortion without having to travel overseas.

The parliamentarians and activists all seek progressive change in the country’s abortion laws—many wanting much more than is currently on offer. As we talked, I was struck about the similarities that Ireland shared with the country I was born in, the Philippines.

I am proud of my country for many reasons, but mainly for its people. Like the Irish, Filipinos are warm and hospitable people with world-class talents, and many of us work overseas to remit money back to our loved ones.

One thing I am certainly not proud of is the fact that one-third of the county’s 95 million people live in dire poverty.

A lack of resources forces many to make choices they should not have to make. This is especially the case in relation to health care, where life and death situations occur far too often.

For 15 years, I fought for a bill that would give my compatriots a choice when it came to family planning.

For 15 years, I watched it languish in parliamentary limbo because of vehement opposition from a determined Catholic hierarchy.

Last December that opposition finally was defeated, and a reproductive health bill was passed.

The parliament stood up for the rights of the people in the Philippines and passed a bill that allows women to, in good faith, make the reproductive health decisions that meet their needs and not those of the hierarchy.

I do not believe that people—especially Catholics—in either the Philippines or Ireland want our elected officials to bend a knee to the will of the bishops.

I’m not suggesting that, in a democratic society, any voice should be silenced, whether or not I agree with it. But it is the job of politicians to carefully examine every lobby group, whether it is a union, a business, or a bishop, before accepting its assertions.

There are a few questions politicians should ask themselves before they accept the bishops’ counsel.

First, does this group speak for the people? A poll showed that 75 percent of people in Ireland—a substantial majority—back wider access to abortion.

Second, is what the group saying correct? On abortion, the evidence shows that increased access to safe and legal reproductive health care services helps women. Clarity in the law would most likely have saved Savita Halappanavar’s life. The bishops’ assertion about the impact of abortion in general and this law in particular are wildly off-target.

Thirdly, how would the changes this group is proposing affect a secular, democratic society?

Every country’s leaders should govern in a manner that allows people to make the best decision for themselves and for their families. The bishops do not believe this.

However, it is worth remembering that the church’s own laws do not require Catholic politicians to legislate according to church teachings.

In addition, Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, promotes a broad definition of religious freedom, stating that it is “imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.”

Imposing the hierarchy’s interpretation of the church’s teaching on abortion onto all Irish people would appear to be the antithesis of supporting such an expansive vision of religious freedom.

Individual lawmakers and individual citizens may not agree with the law and may not choose abortion for themselves, regardless of the circumstances they are in. But personal beliefs should not be used to deny the right to others to make those decisions, in good faith and in good conscience.

Irish legislators now face a similar decision to their colleagues in the Philippines: They will either bow to the hierarchy or permit Irish women, Catholic or otherwise, to make their own reproductive health decisions.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of United States’ only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, we would do well to recall one of his many fine speeches:

I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President if I should be elected—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

The conversations I had with the activists in Ireland were honest, forthright, and touching. They want to see real change in their homeland’s anti-abortion laws. I trust that Irish politicians will take their views and President Kennedy’s words into account and do what is right for Irish women, their families, and the nation.

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  • flan59

    When we couch the arguments in terms like pro-choice, which implies abortion, then we have already lost many people. The argument needs to center on one thing…Equality.

    When the State, rather than women, is allowed to make women’s life-affecting healthcare decisions….then women are Second Class Citizens. Period.

    Women need to be able to make their own reproductive healthcare choices…from birth control to abortion…and when the government legislates any of that away, then women are no longer equal members of society.

    Women need to be able to make their own decision on if, when and how many times they will become a mother…because it affects her very destiny in life…and affects her family’s destiny.

    These laws are infantilizing women – assuming they are too immoral or somehow unable to make these decisions based on their own beliefs, and in counsel with their doctor or anyone else they choose.

    When women have full control over their reproductive health care, then the number of unplanned pregnancies, thus abortions will plummet. Trust Women!

    • Arekushieru

      Except that that’s exactly what Pro-Choice means. It means women making the choice for themselves whether to terminate or continue a pregnancy. I live in Canada, after all. Since abortion is not regulated by the state, does that mean that there are no Pro-Choice women, here? No, it does not. It simply means that we are able to focus on the real meaning behind the issue, unlike our brethren from the south.

      Can people begin to understand why I think moving away from the term Pro-Choice is a disingenuous suggestion at best? Because people are claiming that it is both TOO broad and TOO narrow, at the same time! If it were really either, it would ONLY be one.

      Roman Catholic Women Priests also disagree with the position taken by the Bishops.

  • Barbara Ann

    The Pope does. If you are a Catholic and support something the Church does not, you get out and find another church. Churches never need to conform to an individuals views.

    • colleen2

      Barbara Ann: and yet something like 97% of Catholic women use effective contraception at some point in their lives. Are you saying that those women should “get out and find another church”?

    • LittleMissMellaril

      They do if they wanna have any members left!

    • cjvg

      I’m not catholic and I do not live in a theocracy, so why should the pope have a say in my health care choices

      The pope governs over a spiritual world, not a secular world even he admits that, so why is he trying to usurp what is clearly not his place as is confirmed by the words of his god in his faiths bible!

      Matthew 22:21 “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

      • Jonathan Kuperberg

        There’s no such thing as “his god” with a small “g”; the Pope reads the words of God in THE Bible.

        • cjvg

          Yeah, so not a member of your god crew!
          Your pope interprets the bible and his gods words however he finds them to be most beneficial to him.
          Just like you!

          • Jonathan Kuperberg

            Incorrect. Again, His Holiness reads God’s Word.

          • cjvg

            Again, not my god and not my human idol (golden calf, and false idols does not ring any bells for you?)

          • Jonathan Kuperberg

            Again, no such thing as “my” “god” or “your” “god” with a little “g” so your comment is totally irrelevant to me. He reads God’s Word, end of.

          • cjvg


          • cjvg

            He is a human you just elevated to “His Holiness” , that makes you an idol worshiper!

            Exactly what your god told you not to do, but you already established that you god’s actual words are of no importance to you, it is all about what You deem to be godly or necessary.

            Must be nice to set up your own tailored little god and dismiss any and all words found in the bible that you can’t use.
            You should become a catholic priest you definitely got the self-righteous delusions down pat.

          • Guest

            Nope, human’s word.

          • Jennifer Starr

            Not my holiness. I’m not Catholic.

          • Jennifer Starr

            pope is just a guy. Sorry.

        • Guest

          Nope, His “God” and the words of humans in the “Bible”.