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MANILA, Philippines - As lawmakers move forward with the controversial Reproductive Health bill (RH bill), a leading member of the influential Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) took a jab at it on the first of the 9-day series of Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) gathering.
On December 16, the first of the consecutive night masses marking the count down to Christmas, CBCP Vice-President Socrates B. Villegas, in a pastoral letter, reminded parishioners of the evils of the RH bill.
"Contraception corrupts the soul," he wrote. His message was heard in many churches across the Philippines. Priests like Monsignor Rolando Dela Cruz at San Fernando de Dilao Parish in Paco, Manila, read the letter to Filipinos attending the first dawn mass.
"On behalf of the President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, I reiterate the collective discernment of the Philippine bishops that the RH bill, if passed into law, can harm our nation," parishioners were reminded before they left church.
'Nation's moral fiber at risk'
"The poor are being promised a better life through the RH Bill. It will not be so…Money for contraceptives can be better used for education and authentic health care," the CBCP countered.
"The moral fiber of our nation is at risk," the letter stressed.
"The youth are being made to believe that sex before marriage is acceptable provided you know how to avoid pregnancy. Is this moral? Those who corrupt the minds of children will invoke the divine wrath on themselves."
The CBCP congratulated the 104 congressional members who voted against the bill and he called on Catholic Filipinos to pray that other statesmen would head the "true interests of the Filipino people.
"This means upholding life, saying no to contraception, which is corruption, and being faithful to the Christ Child, who was pro-woman, pro-child and pro-poor," it added.
For nearly two decades, Catholic bishops have staunchly opposed the RH bill, which would improve access to contraceptives and mandate sex education in schools.
However, despite their resistance, the bill hurdled a major legislative obstacle and moved closer to becoming a law on Thursday, December 13. President Benigno Aquino III has also called for the bill's urgent passage.
Those who support the bill say it will help educate the poor and address rapid population growth. The Philippines has struggled to reduce maternity-related deaths. About 11 mothers die every day due to pregnancy-related issues, according to data from the United Nations Fund for Population Agency.
The CBCP was speaking to a dedicated crowd. Parishioners have to wake up before the sun rises to attend the Simbang Gabi.
But the mass generally has a festive feel. Many attendees say they enjoy the sense of community and the traditional holiday desserts after the service.
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle officiated the same mass as the CBCP focused on the meaning of the Christmas holiday.
"The Simbang Gabi tradition I hope will not only foster a sense of prayer, liturgical prayer and communal prayer, but will also deepen the charitable aspect of christian life," Tagle told Rappler. He did not mention the RH Bill at all during his homily.
However he did tell Rappler in an exclusive interview, "We are very clear about our stance that this bill is not the solution that the proposed bill is saying that it would solve. So our stance has not changed."
"Our appeal is for the Congress people to really listen to the truth and not to listen to just listen to human wisdom or even just to political expediences, but to even look ahead as to what is the effect of all of this on the culture, on the youth?"
The Church plays a powerful role in the lives of many Filipinos, as represented by the Simbang Gabi masses. Dedicated parishioners wake up before the sun rises but many say they enjoy the sense of community and the traditional holiday desserts after the mass.
Catholicism and culture are closely intertwined in the Philippines.
About 80% of the country is Catholic. However, the debate about the RH bill shows that many Filipinos are not willing to fully accept all the dictums of the country's catholic bishops. A recent Social Weather Stations survey even showed that in the upcoming senatorial elections, more Filipinos (33%) will vote for pro-RH candidates than anti-RH (who were supported by only 9%).
The passage of the bill will be an important determinant of where the country wants to go. After all, as Tagle said, "Long after we are gone, we will leave behind not just a law but a whole mentality and a whole culture." - Rappler.com