Power of the Catholic Church Slipping in Philippines

Article excerpt

As the Vatican commences its Papal Conclave this week in Rome, a test of the Catholic Churchs moral and political influence is underway in the Philippines.

Catholicism has been the predominant religion of the Philippines since the 1500s and it has the third largest number of Catholic citizens in the world, a legacy of the countrys Spanish colonial history. But church critics here say that now is the time to put the nations devout Catholic past behind them and move toward a more secular state.

Some analysts point out that just as in other Roman Catholic majority countries in Europe and South America, the Churchs influence in the Philippines is waning. Steven Shirley, author of Guided By God: The Legacy of the Catholic Church in Philippine Politics, says the adoption of the Reproductive Health Law, despite church protest, is proof of that.

Its a sign that the Philippines is becoming globalized, that the younger generation is opening up to other ideas beyond the church, says Mr. Shirley. Its a sign that their politics have the ability to go beyond the power of religious groups.

Since colonial times, the Archdiocese has wielded what some call unjust power in the Philippines. In recent decades, the church has been able to make or break the careers of Filipino presidents: It helped take down Joseph Estrada for his alleged corruption and helped bring Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo into power in 2001.

But activists have been emboldened by the passage of the Reproductive Health Law this past December. The Catholic Church of the Philippines vehemently opposes the legislation because of its provision to provide free contraceptives and family planning services to the poor. During its decade-long fight against the bill, the clergy called for civil unrest and even threatened to excommunicate President Benigno Aquino.

I think people are finding the weaknesses of the Catholic Church, says Red Tani, founder of Filipino Free Thinkers, a secular activist group. Filipinos have seen the way politicians have been cowed and bullied [by the Church]. People are becoming more critical.

Theyve been able to shoot down centuries of Catholic doctrine with just one bill, Shirley adds. This is really a challenge to the churchs power.

The church may have believed that the nations nearly 80 million Catholics were all in tow. But multiple opinion polls, such as those conduced by the survey group Social Weather Station, reveal that the majority of Filipinos no longer agree with the Catholic Churchs stance on contraception. And that was enough to compel Aquino and other lawmakers to challenge the Archdioceses authority.

How did it happen?

The Catholic Church here has asserted its influence over the years from both pulpits and podiums. Priests were known to tell congregations not to read newspapers and rely on the clergy as their only source for information, according to Shirley. The Churchs school system teaches Catholic values from the elementary to university level. But some analysts say the power of social media has supplanted that of sermons.

There is now space where voices come out to express views that are not in line with the conventional or traditional views, says Maria Lourdes Rebullida, who lectures in politics at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. …