In the Philippines, Catholic Divorce May Finally Be Legal gnewsplus24

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For a decade, the husband of Michelle Bulang, a 44-year-old mother of four, made her life hell. He drank and gambled, failing to provide for her or their four children, even as he forbade her to work. He was also regularly abusive “physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually,” Bulang said, choking back tears. Once, he poured boiling water all over her—her back and legs still bear the scars.

Bulang has since escaped the relationship and not seen her abuser in years, but on paper she is still married to him. The overwhelming power of the Catholic Church in the Philippines means divorce is not legal. That might be about to change. A divorce bill has passed the House of Representatives and faces the Senate, as the power of the church wanes.

“There are two policies which are seen as a litmus test of Catholic influence. The first is abortion, which is forbidden in the Constitution. And the second is divorce,” said Manolo Quezon III, a former speechwriter for Philippine President Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. There are only two countries in the world where divorce is still not legal—the Vatican City and the Philippines. Other heavily Catholic nations legalized the practice long ago, such as Ireland in 1995 and Spain in 1981. But the lingering influence of the church in a country where nearly 80 percent of the population is Catholic is proverbial.

Yet, from 1917 to 1949, divorce was legal in the Philippines. The right was only abolished in 1949 as U.S. control ended and the anti-clerical legacies of the Philippine Revolution faded. Under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the church became a locus for democratic opposition—even as the president was rumored to keep a divorce bill in his desk to brandish at bishops during meetings when he wanted to keep them in line.

The 1986 People Power Revolution that saw the end of Marcos also saw the peak of church authority. The revered Cardinal Jaime Sin, archbishop of Manila, called people to the streets to protest a rigged election. The Philippines faced a potential Tiananmen moment as tanks rolled. But they stopped as nuns praying the rosary knelt in front of the troops and crowds linked their arms behind them. Marcos fell and fled into exile. The new President Corazon “Cory” Aquino, known for her devotion, inaugurated a new constitution that enshrined democracy, banned abortion, and committed to preserving the family.

Those days are fading. “There is a realization that the Philippines is a secular state, and it should not be subscribing to church principles or doctrines, which we respect but not must not control the policymaking processes,” said Rep. Edcel Lagman, who has helped spearhead the divorce bill. On May 22, the bill narrowly passed the House of Representatives with 131 votes in favor, 109 against, and 20 abstaining.

Under the current system, Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of the country’s population, are allowed to divorce. For Christians, their options are to either having their marriage annulled through a civil court, modeled on the Catholic process—reasons including bigamy, psychological incapacity at time of marriage, or use of fraud or threats—or filing for separation—reasons including physical abuse, adultery, abandonment, homosexuality, and drug addiction and alcoholism. The new bill would allow people who currently seek separation for these reasons to now simply seek divorce.

The inadequacies of this system are well understood. It is both extremely expensive and very slow-moving, leaving victims, usually women, trapped in marriages to monsters. Stella Sibonga, a 47-year-old mother of three, has had nothing to do with her husband for decades. Dug out of hiding and marched to the altar after he got an 18-year-old Sibonga pregnant, he took his vows drunk and proceeded to abuse Sibonga and the children she bore. Out of despair, she twice attempted suicide. Later, he tried to kill her and her children with a machete.

In 2005, at age 27, Sibonga left him, and in 2012 she initiated legal proceedings to have her marriage declared null on the grounds of her husband’s “psychological incapacity.” In 2017, a judge ruled in her favor, but the Office of the Solicitor General, charged by the government with upholding marriage, appealed and won in 2019. The case is still ongoing. Sibonga estimates that it has cost her around 300,000 pesos—over $5,000—to pursue the case. This more than most Filipinos will earn in a year. Her experience of the court system is not unusual.

Those who would reform this system smell victory but are treading carefully, keen to reassure the potentially uncertain. “We sympathize with the concern of some of the conservatives as some states have given divorce a bad name. So they don’t want us to have a Las Vegas type of divorce,” said Paul Roxas, an activist with the Divorce Pilipinas Coalition. A recent poll showed that that exactly 50 percent of Filipinos supported divorce among irreconcilably separated couples, with 31 percent opposed and 17 percent undecided.

Navigating the Senate will be tricky. A divorce bill previously passed the House in 2018 but languished in the Senate. So far, at least seven of the Philippines’s 24 senators have are thought to be in favor of the bill. But four have voiced opposition to the bill, and another 8 have previously made statements against divorce. Still, Roxas is optimistic: “A significant proportion of the senators are sort of fence-sitting.” The Divorce Pilipinas Coalition is lobbying hard those they feel are persuadable and has staked out fall back concessions like only allowing people to divorce once in their lifetimes.

Should the bill pass, it will be the fourth big defeat the Catholic Church has faced in 12 years. In 2012, the Philippine government legalized contraception in the face of furious opposition from the church. In 2016, the presidency was won by Rodrigo Duterte, a man who cursed the pope during his campaign. Church condemnations of the man and the extrajudicial killings that took place in his “war on drugs” failed to dent his enormous popular support. And in 2022, the church all but openly opposed the candidacy of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator. Nonetheless, backed by Duterte, he romped home to victory.

With each defeat, wariness of church power seems to have faded. “In the Philippines, there is no Catholic vote—in other words, we should not be afraid of any reprisal from the Church during the elections,” Lagman said. Indeed, he claims that private polling shows that congresspeople who endorse the divorce bill actually stand to receive a bump in support.

Father Jerome Secilliano, rector of the EDSA Shrine built to commemorate the People Power protests, says things very different from 1986. “People were already exasperated with the government” when cardinal sin made the call, he says. Now, according to Seciliano, people are “exasperated” with a church they don’t feel is doing enough for them. “Let’s admit it we don’t have the resources to provide for the people,” he said. “We are a poor country, there are so many poor people, and poor people expect too much from you.” Instead, they turn to politicians who can offer patronage, cash, and practical solutions. “And people have more practical needs than the Mass.”

Cultural change is also part of the story. Gone are the days of Seciliano’s boyhood when he would press his forehead to the hand of elders and all heard the Angelus toll at 6 o’clock every evening. “When we talk about LGBT in the 1980s, perhaps people will still believe us. But now it’s 2024—because of the many different opinions offered, it’s now very politically incorrect to even call him homo or gay.” Indeed, the Philippines is already strikingly accepting of homosexuality for a Catholic country, and polling shows that young Filipinos are among the most likely to support the divorce bill.

Not all the cultural change is necessarily inimical to the church. Pentecostal and born-again Christians are making big inroads among the Philippines. Theological differences between Catholics and these groups that once caused bloody wars now fade as these churches make common cause on promoting socially conservative Christian values. One prominent opponent of the divorce bill, Sen. Emmanuel Villanueva, is the son of Eddie Villanueva, a former politician who founded The Jesus Is Lord evangelical megachurch.

Still, it’s not always so simple as that says Joseph Bonifacio, a former pastor with Victory Church, another evangelical megachurch. These non-Catholic churches are less monolithic in their attitudes. “This allows for other voices, including more liberal ones.” A recent statement by the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches expressed opposition to the divorce bill, stating a preference instead for expanding grounds for annulment to dissolve the marriage. Given that the grounds for annulment are, with some caveats, close the grounds on which the current bill would grant divorce, the differences seem largely cosmetic.

The Catholic Church is trying to regroup. “The church needs to become a church of the poor,” Father Tito Caluag said. As the man who gives the evening Mass on ABS-CBN, the Philippines’s largest media conglomerate, he is perhaps the closest the Catholic Church has to a celebrity priest. Caluag is trying to take on this task himself reorganizing the church’s charitable efforts talking about professionalization, data analysis, and new fundraising that reduces reliance on single ultrawealthy donors. Notably past polls suggest the working poor are among those most likely to support divorce. Yet it is hard not to notice that the interview is taking place in the Village, one of Manila’s ultraexclusive gated neighborhoods. Caluag explains it was donated by a pious socialite, now deceased, and wryly accepts the irony.

Other tensions will be hard to solve, too. The church must also be a listening church, Caluag says, invoking the words of Pope Francis. “And we must genuinely listen. Because I’ve heard young people say we’ve talked our so-and-so, and he listened, but at the end of it all, he said was the same thing like nothing had happened.”

But he remains opposed to divorce—as doctrine requires all Catholic priests must be. For stories like Sibonga’s and Bulang’s, however, the church seems to have few answers.

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