It is openly endorsing senatorial candidates who they think will repeal this law and conducting a negative campaign against those who had approved the law or now openly back it.
To contribute to the raging political discussion on this issue, I would like to share Alan’s lengthy piece on the matter, which appeared in this month’s issue of D+C, the German Development and Cooperation magazine:
Deadly pro-life rhetoric
18/04/2013 – by Alan C. Robles
Catholic bishops are rallying their followers against a new law on reproductive-health matters in the Philippines. Even many church-going Christians disagree with their increasingly rabid politics.
The Catholic Church suffered a stinging defeat last December when President Benigno Aquino signed a law giving free, non-compulsory family planning services to Filipinos. The RH law (Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012) guarantees universal access to sex education, contraception and maternal care. Basically, the law makes sure that women can decide for themselves whether they want to prevent pregnancies or not. It does not legalise abortion.
The act was debated for over a decade because of uncompromising Church opposition. Last year, Aquino seriously pushed the matter, and an acrimonious public debate ensued. It energised a broad-based movement for maternal health and family planning as well as women’s and gay rights. The movement includes secularists and freethinkers, but also many Catholics. Former health secretary Alberto Romualdez recently told journalists that some bishops actually favour the law but are just keeping quiet.
Most bishops and their “katoliko-sarado” (“closed Catholic” or blindly obedient) supporters have certainly not done themselves any favour by describing RH advocates as “abortionists”, “pro-death”, “Satanists”, “murderers”, “atheists” and “subversives”. Last year, some priests demanded during mass that RH supporters get up and leave. Some walked out and tweeted about it. Archbishop Ramon Arguelles even said President Aquino would be killing “millions of children”, comparing him to the American mass murderer who shot 20 schoolchildren last year.
To hardcore Catholics the RH Act will allow a cascade of horrors to follow. Joselito Asis, the secretary general of the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines), sums up the threats with the acronym DEATHS for “divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total reproductive health, homosexuality, gay marriage and sex education”.
The pro-life rhetoric rings hollow to RH proponents. They argue that the use of condoms would help to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. They also point out that many women die from illegal abortions. Contraception could prevent much suffering – and that is especially obvious in view of the Philippines’ fast population growth, which is set to exacerbate poverty. The Church’s obsession with intimate matters looks bizarre given its series of international sex scandals.
In the big propaganda battle of 2012, the CBCP seemed out of touch. It came across as paternalistic, interested only in maintaining dogma and exacting obedience from the faithful, with no concern for women’s rights or people’s empowerment.
In the end, Aquino succeeded in pushing through the law. Forced to choose between the president’s will and the bishops’ ire, a majority of congressmen voted for the bill. Unlike previous presidents, Aquino didn’t flinch from confronting the Church. The bishops were particularly galled because the person to out-manoeuvre them was the son of the late Corazon Aquino, a former president who was so pious she is practically considered a saint.
Rather than pause to reflect on why it lost, the CBCP immediately doubled down like a gambler raising the stakes. Insisting that “contraception is corruption”, they told the faithful to protest. They also called for a “Catholic vote” in the combined national and local election to be held on 13 May in the hope of overturning the law.
The CBCP and its allies scored a minor victory in March when the Supreme Court unexpectedly blocked the law’s implementation. The Court will hear the case in June. Startled RH partisans suspect it is a religiously conservative ally of the CBCP.
When this essay was written in mid-April, it remained to be seen how the election would play out. However, many Filipinos found it re-assuring that the Catholic vote has historically been a no-show even though their country is deeply marked by this faith (see box).
In 2010 Aquino won the presidency with 15.2 million votes, whereas the Church-backed candidate for the same position got a mere 44,000.
In 1998, the bishops lobbied against the drunkard womaniser Joseph Estrada’s run for the presidency. He won with a landslide.
In 1992, Fidel Ramos, a Protestant, was elected president without the bishops’ endorsement.
At other political levels, candidates have also often prevailed against Church opposition. “There really is no Catholic vote in the Philippines,” says Edcel Lagman, a pro-RH congressman. In his eyes, the Church is weakening itself by “propagating its anachronistic dogma.”
The Church’s stance reduced the May elections to a single issue, which does not serve democracy. Indeed, the CBCP commanded the faithful to vote only for candidates who oppose the RH bill, even if they happen to be corrupt or unqualified. The bishops set aside all other issues, including social justice. As the newspaper columnist and former priest Orlando Carvajal pointed out, the Church was “in effect telling voters that artificial contraceptives are the country’s overarching problem.” He considers “prosperity for all” the more important moral imperative.
By endorsing specific candidates, the Church hierarchy meddled in politics in a way it is not supposed to. “The Church has always said, and this is the teaching, that it should not be involved in partisan politics,” says Father Jose Mario Francisco S.?J., who heads the theology department at the prestigious, Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University.
This stance makes sense. Stringently applied, it would ensure that the church is not polluted by petty politics and can credibly comment on big issues. “To be effective,” Father Francisco says, “we need a church that is listening, that is humble”. It remains to be seen, whether new Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit like Father Francisco, will make a difference. His track-record on reproductive-health issues as Archbishop in Argentina is not promising.
Other relevant concerns
The truth is that the Church can be influential in a meaningful way without getting intricately involved in politics. “When the CBCP takes a stand on a social justice issue, things really get moving,” says Lisandro Claudio, a political science professor at Ateneo de Manila.
Bishops and priests are – and have long been – active in campaigns against corruption, political dynasties, illegal gambling, mining and environmental destruction. They have been effective advocates of social justice, promoting issues such as poverty eradication, human rights, agrarian reform and peace building in a country riven by violent armed groups.
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In the shadow of the cross
The Philippines, according to its constitution, is a secular state, but that is sometimes hard to tell. Religion is so pervasive that both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court open their sessions with prayers. Public and private offices typically have small statues of the Virgin Mary prominently displayed. Shopping malls offer masses and “3 o’clock prayers”. Priests bless everyone and everything from babies and adults to construction equipment, buildings and the Army’s new sniper rifles. Millions attend mass regularly.
Up to 82% of the population of 100 million are Catholic in Asia’s only predominantly Christian country. Here, “even the atheists are Catholic”, as the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said of Spain.
Today, Filipino Christians no longer obey every utterance from the clergy, but the Church certainly has a long history of ordering them around. For 333 years, the Spanish colonial power ran the archipelago like a theocracy. They used the faith as a tool of oppression and indoctrination. A Spanish diplomat, Sinibaldo de Mas, observed in 1843 that “a friar is worth more than a squadron of cavalry” in the colony.
The friars’ abuses, however, helped provoke the 19th century revolution, in which Spain eventually lost the colony. The upheaval drew inspiration from two sardonic, anticlerical social commentary novels written by Jose Rizal. Ironically, the Spanish clergy was replaced by a Filipino clergy, so the Church remained powerful.
In 1954, the Church tried, but failed in bitter struggle that resembled its recent campaign against the reproductive health law, to stop legislation that made it compulsory to study Rizal novels in school. For many years, students were hardly interested however, until the last year’s dispute over reproductive health rekindled interest in the novelist’s biting caricature of lecherous and abusive friars.
The Church has always been part of the power structure. Its finest political hour was when it stopped its “critical collaboration” with Ferdinand Marcos in the late 1980s and played a key role in summoning “people power” to overthrow the dictator. As a result, electoral democracy was re-introduced, and Corazon Aquino became president. (ar)