(Editor’s note: This is a tribute piece to Fr. Renato Ocampo, SJ, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1952 and was ordained in 1965.  He has served in the Ateneo de Davao University for many decades as faculty and in other capacities in the community. He passed away on March 29 at age 89.)

Fr Rene Ocampo never fails to amaze me because I had the most intimate conversation with him on issues that the Roman Catholic Church was and has been sensitive about: sex and gender equality. My few conversations with him were usually random, unintended but pleasant and devoid of judgment. 

For those who do not know Fr Rene, he is Fr Renato Ocampo, SJ, a pillar of Ateneo de Davao University. He taught Religious Studies during my time in college in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There was also the late Atty. Gus Gonzales whom I appreciated so much for understanding spirituality and the concept of institutionalized poverty and how the violence of structures makes people suffer. But it was with Fr Rene where I had more intimate conversations with.  

Fr. Rene was a patient, gentle person and very slow to anger, so to speak. His power did not come from anger. I had a male classmate who was caught being boisterous and rowdy in the classroom and suddenly stopped and became quiet because from the outside Fr Rene came in, making himself visible with a smile we did not understand, or probably did. Everybody became quiet. I have not seen him scold anyone. This was Fr Rene.

At that time, I disagreed with the concept that sex should just be in the context of marriage, and, therefore, should only be for the purpose of pro-creation. It appeared like the pleasure that people derive from sex was something that couples look forward to when procreating.

Now this was the 70’s, when people started feeling the burden of Martial Law when procreating became expensive for the poor but were doing it anyway to economically and biologically survive. (For the poor families, a six-year old can help in economic productivity by feeding chickens and pigs. Poor families tend to experience higher Infant Mortality Rate and Child Mortality Rate. The high-income families mocked the poor for having many children they cannot send to school. This context of the poor might not make sex pleasurable). And I started to wonder if the high-income couples can have lots of pleasurable sex with less children because they had access to everything. Or was it like, the high-income couples had less sex because they had less children. So, if we factor in wealth and poverty, the philosophy of sex becomes complicated for me. And I started questioning why sex had to be a choice between pleasure and procreation? And why not a CHOICE between pleasure with procreation and pleasure without procreation? The key word was CHOICE…and the constant in the equation was PLEASURE. Too many questions about the morality and immorality of sex. This was the irreverent me.

I could not recall when and how this sex conversation took place but we were a small group with Fr Rene joining us. We talked about sex, seriously and matter-of-factly. Then out of the blue I asked him, “Father, what do you think about fellatio and cunnilingus? Is it sexual deviancy?” And he replied, “If the couple wants it and they both enjoy it and there is no coercion, it cannot be.” Then I said, ‘Thank you for telling me that, Father, you see, I encountered a health professional who said otherwise and was absolute about it.” It was very empowering being given a safe space to discuss sex openly in school, and a religious institution at that.

Another occasion was the time when the Reproductive Health Bill became a burning issue. I asked him (politely, of course) why the institutional church had to be adversarial toward us, pro-choice women, and why some parish priests treated the issue as an Absolute Teaching, in the same level as belief in God, when the issue was to be treated as “authoritative but non-irreformable”. (Another phrase I learned from Fr. Paris, my Bioethics teacher during my medical school days, was, “authentic but non-infallible”). I rationalized that social justice was probably “divine, non-revealed truth,” and this was the lens the women’s movements use. So how can the institutional church condemn us?

In his calm demeanor, he very carefully said that the church just set a standard and members may opt to follow or dissent with due diligence. Whew! What a relief to have religious people like him. I thought I would have been exorcised (or rebuked) for the way I think because I had colleagues that almost vilified me and even accused my group of teaching young people to “blowjob so they cannot have unwanted pregnancy.”

For clarification, as an advocate I have always been secular, ecumenical and inclusive. But I am still rooted for my church institution for the purpose of mainstreaming the people on the margins in the institutional church.

It was the likes of Fr. Rene who provided an intellectual safe space for the church members. I stayed because of people like him. Nothing here but respect. Happy arrival in heaven Fr Rene Ocampo, SJ.

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