Not since the turbulent days of the conflict between the Marcos dictatorship and the Catholic Church in the Philippines led by Jaime Cardinal Sin over human and political rights have the state and the Church been as bitterly at odds as they are today.
This time, they are fighting over a proposed policy on population control.
On Saturday, the dispute came to a head with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) leading thousands of Catholics in a prayer rally to protest against President Benigno Aquino’s support for the reproductive health (RH) bill that would curb population growth through contraceptives.
Aquino’s call for the passage of the bill in his State of the Nation Address to a joint session of Congress on July 23 angered the CBCP, which has led opposition to the proposal and organised Saturday’s protest.
Aquino urged swift passage of the RH bill, which would provide “universal access and information on natural and modern family planning methods and reduce the number of mothers and babies dying during childbirth.”
That was anathema to the bishops, some of whom took Aquino’s words as a “declaration of war” against the Church teachings prohibiting the use of contraceptives.
The bishops called the Church’s followers, who comprise 80 percent of the Philippines’ nearly 100 million population, to take to the streets in a “show of force” – a sort of people power uprising like the revolution Aquino’s late mother (President Corazon Aquino) used to topple the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.
To symbolise people power, the prayer rally was held at the Edsa Shrine on the highway where previous mass actions against the government, including some in which Cardinal Sin was the prime mover, took place.
In the current conflict, the Aquino administration appears to have parted ways with the Church by espousing a national policy that would slow down population growth. With a population of more than 93 million, the Philippines is the 14th most populous country in the world.
Although Saturday’s rally did not attract massive turnouts, like those in Edsa I (1986) and Edsa II (which deposed Joseph Estrada in 2001), it managed to draw at least 10,000 protesters in Metro Manila, according to police estimates. Similar numbers were reported in Iloilo City and Cebu City and in other provincial centers.
With the Edsa Shrine rally, the President experienced for the first time since he took office two years ago trenchant criticism of his policy. Without pulling punches, the leading prelates ridiculed him and denounced his priorities.
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, in a message read for him by former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta de Villa said: “My dear youth, contraception is corruption. The use of government money, taxpayers’ money to give out contraceptive pills is corruption. Contraceptive pills teach us it is all right to have sex with someone provided you are safe from babies. Babies are a nuisance.”
By saying “contraception is corruption,” Villegas, who was a close confidant of the late Cardinal Sin, was telling the nation that Aquino’s support for the reproductive health bill was undermining his promise to the nation to stamp out corruption.
He said the Church maintained that modern contraceptive methods prevented procreation, “which should be the only function of sex.” Should the bill pass, he said, it would produce an “abortion generation.”
Defending the RH bill on the eve of the rally, the President said that where couples “are in no position to make an informed judgment, the state has the responsibility to provide.”
The bill would use the state-run PhilHealth insurance fund to provide birth control pills, condoms and other contraceptives for free.
It would give the poor preferential access to family planning services in state hospitals while lessons on family planning and sex education would become compulsory in schools and for couples applying for a marriage license.
The bill has been stalled in the House of Representatives for nearly 15 years because of the opposition of the Church. The opposition is grounded on the doctrine pronounced in a 2005 CBCP pastoral letter that elaborated on the Church’s concept of responsible parenthood.
Quoting from the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, the pastoral letter said: “It calls for due regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions in deciding to raise a numerous family. It includes the spouse’s decision, based on grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for a time being or even indeterminate period, a new birth.”
In calling on Congress to pass the bill, the President justified the measure on economic grounds, an entirely different context from that of the Church.
He said the measure was an important step in dealing with the country’s socioeconomic problems, particularly poverty and underemployment.
The bishops called the rally to show Congress that “most Filipinos oppose the bill that would curb population growth.” Senior members of Congress, however, say the bill would not authorise abortion as a means of curbing population growth.
The bishops claim that they have lobbied with congressmen not to vote for the bill, and by their head count, more than a hundred members of the House have pledged to vote against it tomorrow.
Whether the opponents of the bill have the numbers to stop the bill’s passage remains to be seen.
With most congressmen facing their first election next year, the bishops have promised to campaign against the reelection of legislators who would vote for the bill. Other congressmen, say, however, that there’s no such thing as a solid Catholic vote.
Next year’s elections will be mostly local races, and the bishops, with their extensive network of parishes, believe the Church has lots of influence in rural areas.
The Church faces big risks in putting its clout on the line on the basis of this assumption.