On cursory reading, the Gospel brings us to explosive issues of the day, mainly divorce and marriage: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” When the issues come into the discussion table, what you actually see is a “big basket,” to borrow one author’s phrase, which contains all sorts of related or unrelated things — abortion, gender, diverse family, sexual orientation, contraception, reproductive health, HIV prevention, sex work, etc.
On the one hand, we see natural law theorists accusing the other side of destroying the “natural institution” of the family or tinkering what God has “naturally ordained.” On the other hand, we see feminists and queer theorists of all kinds who accuse the other side of racism, misogyny, and exclusion. But we also know that each pole does not meet eye to eye on some basic issues. The debate looks endless.
I think it is not helpful to use big banners to accuse the other, e.g., “purveyors of gender ideology” vs. “anti-feminists,” “culture of death” vs. “culture of life,” conservative vs. liberal, or as in the RH debate of recent memory, “Team Buhay” vs. “Team Patay.”
Maybe it is useful to unpack the “big basket” as it were and locate each issue in concrete contexts, listen to all positions deeply, respect all social experiences as they are founded on fluid and plural—sometimes opposing—personal, cultural, and religious sensibilities. In short, respect and understanding do nurture; name-calling and polarization can kill.
What I intend to do in this short reflection is to place the issue in perspective as Jesus did in the Gospel today. The law on divorce? It was not really like that in the beginning. But God also understands our humanness. The Greeks have a word — “epikeia,” which means to be reasonable. In Aristotle, epikeia exists as a corrective to enacted laws which by nature are universal, thus, limited. Since lawmakers could not foresee all possible circumstances, a person on the ground needs to digress, revise, amend the law in actual practice.
The law still remains as law but epikeia makes it contextual, humane and compassionate. I paraphrase what the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, says: It would have been nice if we achieve what is “most humanly desirable” as all laws envision. But since all of it is not really attainable, we settle for the “most humanly possible.”
Two things I learn from the Gospel.
First, humanity, flexibility, compassion, respect are the characteristics of an authentic Christian community. As in the Gospel, the ideal still remains. Its role is to remind us of things to which our hearts can still grow, to challenge our own constraints and blindness, to satisfy our longings beyond the present horizons. But these ideals are not meant to condemn what our humanness dictates. Instead, they show their own limits by attending to the human context. For God respects us where we are.
Second, the privileged place goes to the small, the “child,” the most defenseless among us. Another French author, Emmanuel Levinas writes: “The face, in its nudity and defenselessness, says: ‘Do not kill me.’” The naked face of the other is the face of the helpless orphan, widow, or the stranger begging for life. How a society listens to the naked plea of the most powerless shows the measure of its own humanness.
If there is any position to which we all should defer, it is not to the power of the law but to the cry of the weak, the powerless, the excluded. When our social rules oppress and kill the defenseless, we should be up in arms to change the laws, to kill the rule. To quote another Frenchman older than Ricoeur and Levinas by some centuries who says: “Charity is greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules lead to charity” (Vincent de Paul).
“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.