Catholic Church takes on reproductive rights in Philippines, risks further alienation

By John Otis

MANILA, Philippines — Upset over a new law that provides poor Filipinos with easier access to birth control methods, Catholic Church leaders threw their weight around ahead of the May 13 midterm elections — but they miscalculated their heft.

In cathedrals around the country, clergymen hung red-and-black banners asking the faithful to vote for legislative candidates who oppose the Reproductive Health Law, which they view as a first step towards legalizing abortion. These candidates comprised what some bishops and priests dubbed “Team Life” while those who favored the law were branded by conservative Catholics as “Team Death.”

But many “Team Death” candidates triumphed and in the aftermath of the voting, Ramon Arguelles, the archbishop of the city of Lipa, told reporters: “I am not happy.”

A growing number of Filipino Catholics apparently feel the same way about their church. Although the Philippines remains the third-largest Roman Catholic country in the world after Brazil and Mexico, experts say that the influence of church leaders has been steadily declining as Filipinos disregard Catholic doctrine or, in some cases, find other faiths.

Many people disagree with the church’s conservative stance on social issues and some have become disillusioned by the Vatican’s slow response to the church sexual abuse scandals. Mirroring so-called “de-churchification” in other predominantly Catholic countries, a recent survey showed that only 37 percent of Filipino Catholics go to Mass compared to 66 percent in 1991.

Shortly after services on a recent Sunday at the Malate Church, one of Manila’s oldest, Father Michael Martin, an Irish priest who has lived in the Philippines since the 1960s, took stock of the church’s troubles.

“Every institution has its bright side and its dark side, and in the course of addressing the problems you may lose a lot of disciples,” Martin said. “The Catholic Church, for the most part, is ruled and governed by elderly white male permanent celibates and that has a lot of limiting effects. Their world experience is quite far removed from people around them.”

Even so, the church remains one of the country’s most powerful institutions. About 80 percent of the 100 million people in the Philippines consider themselves Catholics, a legacy of 350 years of Spanish colonial rule. Politicians often refrain from crossing the church which is why both abortion and divorce remain illegal. Newspapers carry religious columns with names like “Our Daily Bread.” Besides churches, Mass is sometimes held in shopping malls, banks and other nontraditional venues.

By some accounts, the high point for the modern Catholic Church in the Philippines came during the “People Power” revolution of the 1980s.

Although the church supported longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Catholic leaders began to distance themselves from the regime because they feared the alliance could permanently damage their reputation. At one critical juncture during the uprising against Marcos, defecting military officers barricaded themselves inside the defense ministry. Catholic leaders voiced their approval and called on people to surround the building to prevent loyalist troops from intervening. Marcos fled the country shortly afterwards.

“The church knew it had a choice of either being totally identified with Marcos or making a difference” on behalf of democracy, said Harry Roque, a Manila lawyer and political analyst. “The church made the right choice.”

But more recently, the institution has seemed badly out of step with average Filipinos.

For example, the Reproductive Health Law mandates that the government provide free condoms, birth control pills and other contraceptive methods to people who can’t afford them and provide sex education in public schools. Public health officials say the law is extremely important in a country where more than a quarter of the population is poor and where teen pregnancies are common.

“Women will have more access” to contraceptives, said Susan Mercado of the World Health Organization. “There will be more education on responsible parenthood and, overall, that will improve the health of women and children in this country.”

The church hierarchy firmly opposed the law which was approved in December after similar proposals over the past two decades had gone down to defeat. Even so, the Supreme Court in March suspended its implementationuntil judges hear arguments from Catholic groups that have filed petitions arguing the legislation is unconstitutional.

Passage of the Reproductive Health Law also gave rise to the church campaign to elect social conservatives in this month’s legislative elections.

“We know (greater access to birth control) will just snowball later on. After this, they will file bills for divorce, euthanasia, abortion, and homosexual marriages,” Bishop Vicente Navarra of Bacolod City in the central Philippines, who came up with the “Team Life-Team Death” banners, told the AFP news agency.

But the electoral drive failed, in part, because the Catholic Church itself is divided between liberals and conservatives with many bishops and priests saying they support some parts of the new law.

“The Catholic vote is a myth and this year’s national and local elections validated that,” wrote Aries Rufo onRappler, a Filipino news website.

Some Catholic priests insist that even if the number of churchgoers is declining, they would rather minister to true believers than Filipinos who are just going through the motions.

“We are not begging for people to become members,” said Father Maximo Villanueva, who preaches at the Ermitas Catholic Church in downtown Manila. “We are more interested in quality than quantity.”

Yet Villanueva is also willing to reach out to Filipinos in unconventional settings.

On a recent Sunday, he offered Mass at the Robinsons Place shopping center. Malls may be temples of consumerism but unlike many churches in hot, humid Manila, they are air-conditioned and draw huge crowds.

Villanueva set up a temporary altar on the fourth floor between a Cineplex called MovieWorld and a barber shop. An organist began playing religious songs and, one by one, shoppers plunked down on plastic chairs to listen. By the time the line formed to take Holy Communion, it was a standing-room-only crowd.

“If people cannot go to the church,” Villanueva said afterwards, “we will go to them.”