Modernity’s pains

A lot of confusion and recrimination has attended the discussion of vital current issues in our country. Some of it is avoidable, but a great deal of it constitutes what we may call the pains of modernity. Recent events – the controversial remarks of Bishop Nereo Odchimar, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), and the stunning one-person picket staged by the reproductive health activist Carlos Celdran during a Mass at the altar of the Manila Cathedral – foreground once again the undying issue of the relationship of Church and State.

I wish to contribute a sociological perspective to this ongoing debate.  But, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that a younger brother of mine, Pablo Virgilio S. David, a biblical scholar, is an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of San Fernando, Pampanga.  He is also a member, as far as I know, of the permanent council of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).  While I have had the occasion to refer to him in previous columns, I think it is important to bring out the fact of our affinity here because in our society, people tend to judge you not on what you say but on who your relatives are.  Let me assure the readers of this column that my having a bishop for a brother has no bearing on what I say as a sociologist.

The term “modernity” has been used in a variety of ways.  I use it here to refer specifically to the differentiation of communications, of roles and institutions, according to their function. Functional differentiation is an achievement of modern society. Traditional societies tend to be differentiated along segmental and hierarchical lines, rather than along functional lines.  Thus, traditional society would ask which family or tribe or religion you belong to in order to arrive at a determination of who you are, while modern society would be content to simply ask what you do.

Modern society recognizes the plurality of standpoints from which one may view an issue like contraception.  The political perspective frames it in relation to population planning.  The economic perspective sees it as a strategic component of the war against mass poverty.  The religious perspective, on the other hand, frames the question primarily in moral terms – i.e., as a matter of conscience. The legal perspective gives to the family the option to use a wide range of available forms of preventing conception, even as it explicitly frowns upon all forms of abortion. The family perspective might see contraception in relation to the requirements of responsible parenthood, while the medical profession views it as an aspect of reproductive health.

In modern society, none of these perspectives can claim an overarching authority beyond its own domain.  Not the Church, not the State, not even medical science. In contrast, traditional society gave to the churches a dominant voice on family planning issues, in full recognition of their role as agents of a general moral code.  Functional differentiation changed all this by assigning to the family the sole prerogative to make decisions concerning family size and methods for preventing conception.

But the process is far from complete in our society. We are in the middle of a wrenching transition to modernity.  Our formally differentiated institutional systems are still struggling to substantiate their autonomy in a society that remains very much under the spell of a religious culture.  This is the principal source of modernity’s pains.

The Church cannot be faulted for pronouncing its stand on every conceivable issue.  That is its mission – to evangelize the world and to spiritualize every aspect of human activity.  It does so in full awareness that it is fighting a rearguard battle to preserve its relevance in an increasingly secular world.  But even as the Church tirelessly communicates the gift of a faith-based life, it does so, knowing that it can no longer command belief through the threat of eternal damnation.  Thus, threatening a head of state with excommunication — because the latter intends to distribute contraceptives to poor families that ask for them — has to be the emptiest and silliest thing any church can do in the modern world.  I am glad that Bishop Odchimar quickly clarified his remarks and denied having issued such a threat.

Modernity is a tricky situation.  It confers autonomy on institutional systems, but exacts accountability as a price.  The whole world is your arena, but you have to take care not to overstep the unwritten bounds of your authority.  The ultimate penalty is losing your credibility and authority within your own turf.

Modern social systems preserve their authority and autonomy through selfrestraint and self-regulation. This has been a particularly difficult problem for the Catholic Church in the Philippine because meddling is what it is accustomed to do in its relationship to politics.  This is so not just because it is heir to a long tradition of ecclesiastical supremacy.  It is so because its intervention in the nation’s politics continues to be sought during elections by politicians and, in moments of political crisis, by citizens’ movements themselves.

If we want to limit the Church’s intervention in government, the way to achieve this is not by shutting up the Church, but by strengthening the political system’s capacity for autonomous decision-making.  This requires not just discouraging the rampant practice of seeking the endorsement of religious leaders during elections, but also regulating the unmonitored political contributions from the business sector.