The Catholic Church’s relationship with Philippine democracy can be complicated. In times of political instability, the Church is ready to act as a defender of democratic rights and institutions. For example, the Church rallied the citizenry to guard the ballot during the 1986 Snap Elections and it actively participated in the subsequent People Power revolution that ended the Marcos dictatorship and restored democratic rule in the country. In times of political stability, however, the hierarchy’s involvement in national affairs can sometimes be inconsistent with the country’s democratic system. An ongoing debate between the bishops and the government on a proposed reproductive health bill is an example of how the Church can resist democratic processes.
The proposed bill’s stated purpose was to reduce maternal and infant mortality, improve maternal health care, and ensure universal access to family planning information and services. The bishops claimed that the bill is a form of population control. The hierarchy has objected to provisions that would impose mandatory sex education in all schools, allow contraceptives with possible abortifacient effects, and impose heavy penalties on those who resist implementing the bill. Legislators who support the bill argued that while the bill ensures freedom of choice regarding family planning methods, it does not allow abortion, which is prohibited by the Philippine Constitution. The Church has claimed that Catholic tax payers’ money should not be used to promote and distribute contraceptives. The legislators have argued that taxes have no religious identity once paid to the government.
Rather than engage the government in dialogue and negotiation, church leaders chose to use more aggressive tactics – politicians were threatened with excommunication and election boycotts, legislators were subjected to name-calling in pulpits and in public statements, moderate voices calling for dialogue were treated with suspicion and antagonism, and those who differed with the hierarchy’s hard-line position were called bad Catholics.
Many lay Catholics have publicly expressed their disagreement with the bishops’ position and tactics. Groups of students, academics, urban poor women, and doctors have made public statements in support of the bill. The President, a Catholic, declared in a speech that he was ready to be excommunicated for supporting the bill. Some bishops have called for the President’s resignation. Disturbed by the rising tension between the Church and the government, many Filipinos are hoping for an end to the conflict that has deeply divided the country.
The bishops now face a crucial choice. If they choose to ignore the democratic procedures of lawmaking and reject any kind of dialogue with the government on the proposed bill, they may eventually find themselves isolated and ignored by ordinary Filipinos. If, however, the bishops take to heart the Vatican II image of a pilgrim Church journeying with the modern world and learn to engage in democratic debate and reasonable dialogue with the government, then perhaps they can constructively contribute to changes in the bill that would ensure the protection of life, respect for human rights, and the promotion of health of women and children.
Eric Genilo, SJ (firstname.lastname@example.org) finished his doctorate at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachussetts. He teaches moral theology at the Loyola School of Theology at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, Philippines. He has published John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Press, 2007).