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
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
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. …