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Sen. Santiago’s RH Speech: a Win for RH, a Loss for Secularism

I’m ambivalent about Sen. Santiago’s RH sponsorship speech. As an RH advocate, I’m happy. Her speech was effective in terms of increasing the chances of the RH Bill passing.

But as an advocate of secularism, I’m disappointed. She replaced arguing from one religious perspective — CBCP’s version of Catholicism — with arguing from another religious perspective — the progressive Catholicism adhered to by most Catholic advocates I know.

This wouldn’t be a problem if she held progressive Catholicism as one of her private motivations for being pro-RH. But to use it as a public argument in Senate is indefensible. This bears repeating: The Philippine Constitution states that secularism shall be inviolable. Although the Philippines may be predominantly Catholic, it should have a secular government — one that is religiously neutral.

Sen. Santiago’s speech is as religiously biased as it gets. How many times did she mention God and the Church in her speech? She didn’t even try to be pluralistic; she could have made God and Church applicable to other religions. But it was clear from the start that she was focused on no other religion but the Roman Catholic one.

Her main argument was that Catholics shouldn’t blindly obey the priests and Popes, their doctrines and dogmas; they should follow their conscience instead. Why? Because the 2nd Vatican council said so. But by following their conscience, Catholics will only be obeying a different group of priests and Popes and doctrines and dogmas.

And while Sen. Santiago argues with the CBCP about which group of religious leaders Catholics should follow, non-Catholic Filipinos remain unrepresented. Non-Catholics don’t care what a Catholic Pope or bishop says. Nor should a secular government.

Some might think it’s a good thing Sen. Santiago is fighting fire with fire, pitting her progressive theology against the CBCP’s conservative version. But by doing so, she has conceded the battleground. She has implicitly agreed that the RH bill is also about theology — the CBCP’s preferred arena. Instead of setting the stage for secular arguments, she left the door open for CBCP’s religious arguments. And in a supposedly secular Senate, even one is too many.

I believe the RH bill has come this far because of a shift toward a more secular outlook — decreasing trust in religious arguments and supernatural causes, increasing reliance on scientific evidence and real-world effects. Although it aims to weaken an ancient authority, Sen. Santiago’s speech strengthens an ancient paradigm: the Philippines is a Catholic country and you have to use Catholic arguments to change it.

Maybe Sen. Santiago thinks the only way to win the RH battle is to fight it theologically. A victory against the CBCP on its own turf might just be the push the RH bill needs to pass. Though such a victory is still uncertain, one thing’s for sure: using theology as a tactic is a clear defeat in the fight for secularism.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.