Church and State in the Philippines: Tackling Life Issues in a "Culture of Death"

By Bautista, Julius | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Church and State in the Philippines: Tackling Life Issues in a "Culture of Death"


Bautista, Julius, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Above all, society must learn to embrace once more the great gift of life, to cherish it, to protect it, and to defend it against the culture of death, itself an expression of the great fear that stalks our times ... A society with a diminished sense of the value of human life at its earliest stages has already opened the door to a culture of death.--Pope John Paul II, October 1998.

In 1998, then Pope John Paul II addressed visiting American Bishops in Rome. As the Catholic Church approached its Jubilee year in 2000, the former Pontiff reiterated that the most important task of Bishops was to be proactive in fighting a pernicious "culture of death"--an indictment on those who sought to normalize abortion and artificial forms of birth control. Half a world away, that message was heard loud and clear. A decade since the former Pontiff's address, the "great fear" of a "culture of death" still resonates strongly within the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines. The Filipino clergy's stance on issues such as contraception and birth control has brought them in direct contestation with legislators, particularly as the need for a definitive national policy on the demographic and sexual well-being of the Filipino people is deliberated upon in the Philippine Congress. On which issues do the agendas of the Church and the state intersect in the Philippines? And to what extent does the Philippine Church remain beholden to the traditional teachings of the Vatican?

In this essay I shall reflect upon these questions by examining the issue of population growth and reproductive health (henceforth PGRH). For it is by analyzing the "culture of death" as it is manifested in official Church discourse that we can effectively gauge the extent to which the Catholic Church exerts pressure upon the legislative process of governance in the Philippines. Typically, the interaction between Church and state in the Philippines is analyzed according to the former's role in extra-constitutional interventions, most notably in the removal of Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. The issue of PGRH is a platform from which we can analyze the impact of religion within the constitutional process of governance, and as such offers potential for a more nuanced understanding of Church-state interaction.

As an ecclesiastical institution, the Church in the Philippines projects a united position on issues affecting the political, social, and cultural vicissitudes of Filipinos through the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). In addition to church sermons, these positions are expressed in the form of periodically released pastoral letters and "Bishop Blogs" hosted on the official CBCP website. More than just united statements of an official stance, pastoral letters become the basis of sacramental life itself, often being disseminated and discussed during Mass. The analytical strategy I employ in this essay is to consider the Church's proclamations on matters of demography and sexual morality as they are expressed through such official channels. What insights about the Church's relationship with the state in the Philippines can we glean from the discourse of official pronouncements and statements?

It must be pointed out from the outset that the Philippine Church is not a monolithic entity, and it is prudent to assume that there are rifts within the hierarchy. The perspective that laments the "culture of death" is only one among a multitude of voices in the debate; albeit a prominent one. The official Philippine Church position on PGRH, on the whole, is widely interpreted as a logical, uncompromising extension of traditional Roman Catholic teachings on the family. Grounding the discussion of Church-state relations on the issue of PGRH at the very least encourages us to distinguish between conservative, moderate, and progressive positions within the Church. I argue that the official Church, for various political agendas, maintains a consistent foregrounding on traditional Church teachings. …

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