Another very contentious issue is likely to gain traction during the presidential term of Rodrigo Duterte. And once again it will involve taking on the considerable power of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church. The issue this time is divorce.
While the sanctity of marriage is a sacrament of the Catholic Church, with the exception of Vatican City, the Holy See, the Philippines is the only country on earth where divorce is constitutionally illegal. And though changes to the marriage laws have been called for by legislators over more than three decades, it is only now that the people are truly getting behind the demands and it’s starting to look like the time for divorce has finally come for this archipelago of close to 88 million Catholics.
What many are calling for is full-blown divorce – not annulment; not legal separation. The Church and its supporters – including many within the Philippine Congress – point to the annulment provision under Article 26 of the Family Code as adequate protection for women in abusive relationships. But this is expensive and beyond the reach of all but a few Filipinos and is extremely time consuming. An annulment can cost up to US$4,000 and take years to process. That provision has failed say those who support divorce legislation.
Leading the cause is House of Representatives member, Edcel Lagman, who was also the main author of the 2012 Reproductive Health Bill – Priests vs parenting in Act of conflict. Last month he presented a bill that would permit divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, but already there are signs that the Catholic Church is starting to put pressure on legislators.
But Lagman’s timing is good and the tide of public opinion is very much on his side. Poll numbers bear this out. According to the surveys, 43% of Filipinos favoured divorce in 2005; in 2011 that number rose to 50%, and last year a full 60% wanted divorce to be made legal.
Moreover, the Church’s authority was successfully challenged – thanks in large part to his efforts – by the passage of the RH Bill during the last administration. The bishops’ authority is also increasingly being questioned by gay rights groups who have the support of their president and by women’s organisations who rail at the abuse their sisters are subjected to in bad marriages.
Duterte, himself, has said that he will not be cowed by the Church and expects it to stay out of the political process. The election in which he was swept to power he has said was “a referendum between me and the Church”.
Add to all that the fall in mass attendances in the main conurbations – they are still extremely large in the countryside – the push by the government to deliver all the provisions of the RH Act including access to free contraceptives for poor families and sex-education programmes in schools, as well as a new mood spreading across the country where people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives, and the odds for divorce in the Philippines have never been better.
Certainly, Lagman, a former House Minority Floor Leader, will not back down. He faced the ire of the Church throughout the RH Bill’s passage into law with one senior bishop declaring that the Church would not “give him the honour to make him excommunicated,’ declaring that by his actions Lagman had excommunicated himself.
Duterte, whose first marriage was annulled, is reported to be “open” to divorce. That may seem a little vague but what we do know is that he is a staunch defender of Church-state separation and that he will not allow the Church to pressure his ultimate decision on this matter. In the end, that will be for the people to decide.