When one considers the debates about whether the Philippines should legalise divorce in-keeping with the majority of the world in the 21st century, one often hears debates about morality, ethics, ideology and religion. What is less considered during such debates is the practicalities of the matter, although ultimately it is the practicalities of any such legislation which will effect the greatest number of people in their daily lives.
Implicit in such a debate is the issue of separation of church and state. something that is guaranteed in the Philippine constitution along with guarantees of the freedom for individuals to exercise their peaceful religious beliefs without restriction. While some would argue about the merits of divorce prohibition from a secular standpoint, in The Philippines there is a clear link to the de-facto controls that the Roman Catholic Church still holds over much of society. This is made explicitly clear by the fact that Philippine law allows Muslims to divorce in keeping with the fact that the Muslim faith is far more lenient regarding divorce vis-a-vis Catholicism.
The question about legalising divorce therefore is not about an official position in people’s personal lives but rather it is about striking a blow for the secular rule of law against a religious institution that continues to openly meddle in Philippine politics.
In spite of his record popularity in the years since securing a democratic victory in the 2016 Presidential election, President Rodrigo Duterte remains an open political target for the Roman Catholic Church which continues to side with his opponents in just about every course of action he takes.
While every individual including clergy has the right to express a political opinion, when an institution as wealthy and power as the Roman Catholic Church sees fit to play an obstructionist role in national politics, the institution ceases to be one concerned with the spiritual life of individuals and becomes one that is concerned with the political fate of the state – something which is not and cannot allowed to be its role. The Church’s meddling in politics not only immoral but it is deeply regressive and anti-democratic.
Duterte has never be shy about criticising the Roman Catholic Church. During his election campaign, Duterte stated,
“I will lecture until June 29 the sins of the Catholic Church and whether or not you are still relevant…..Let this election be a referendum between me and the Catholic church”.
In 2017, he said that Church leaders were “full of shit”. Duterte who himself was a victim of Church abuse has accused clergy of hypocrisy saying,
“You criticise the police, you criticise me. For what? You have the money. You are all crazy … when we were making confessions to you, we were being molested. They are touching us. What is your moral ascendancy, religion? What is the meaning of it!”.
While Duterte has personally expressed ambivalence about the Congressional vote to repeal the prohibition on divorce, in related matters, he has shown support for issues that are typical red lines of Rome. In 2017 Duterte spoke in favour of legalising same-sex marriages in The Philippines, saying:
“I want same-sex marriage. The problem is we’ll have to change the law. But we can change the law…
…But if you would ask me what makes you happy, do it. You can only do it once. Never return back. This is one straight deal. So whatever makes you happy, you go out of this universe happy and fulfilled. If it makes the gays happy, let them be. I do not condemn anybody there. What makes you happy, good. Just don’t violate the law”.
Ultimately what matters most for The Philippines beyond any personal feelings about divorce or same-sex marriage is helping to break the political cartel that is the Church’s meddling in the political affairs of a sovereign secular republic.
The current move to legalise divorce would be a large step forward in breaking a public stigma that has been hoisted upon The Philippines by the Roman Catholic Church in such a way so as to retard the political progress of the nation.
Duterte has a keen sense of who his friends and enemies are and the fact of the matter is that Church leaders are not Duterte’s friends by any stretch of the imagination. In recent years, Church leaders have made themselves out to be little more than the Liberal Party in robes.
Therefore, it would benefit the political life of The Philippines to legalise divorce and in so doing weaken the power of an institution that can only healthily function if it acts within rather than above the realms of the law.