Philippine Catholic Church Backs Down

Having ignited a firestorm of protest, the Catholic Church appears to be backing away from a veiled threat to excommunicate President Benigno Aquino III for his statement of support for families who opt for birth control, saying a top church leader's comments were misunderstood.

The incident is both a graphic reminder of the church's hold over the Filipino population and an indication that that hold may be weakening. For years, the church has kept a reproductive rights bill bottled up in the Congress, threatening to campaign against anybody who votes for it and in a couple of cases succeeding in driving proponents from politics.

But at a time when Filipinos seem to be flocking to a variety of evangelical sects instead of the mother church, the support given the bill by several protestant churches could also further erode the Roman Catholic dominion.

Public protest over this latest incident has been widespread. After a statement by Bishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), that Aquino could be denied the church's blessing, the Philippines' scrappy radio stations came alive with demands that the church get out of politics.

Also, in a reference to a corrupt Spanish friar named Padre Domaso from Jose Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere, who fathered a daughter, supporters of the reproductive health bill have been printing up T-shirts with the word "Damaso" as a protest. One activist disrupted mass at Manila Cathedral by going in dressed as Rizal and holding a up a sign saying "Damaso."

Critics have also thronged Facebook and other online sites as well.

"The anachronistic historically irrelevant Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines is becoming increasingly isolated in its opposition to the RH bill which polls show is favored by at least 71 percent of the population," one wrote. Another wrote that "a coalition of churches and faith-based organizations in the Philippines has given their support for House Bill 5043, also known as the Reproductive Health Bill, which seeks to address the high population and worsening poverty in the Philippines through the promotion of reproductive health."

Odchimar later denied having threatened the president, despite the fact that in an interview with the church-run Radio Veritas, he mentioned the possibility that Aquino could face excommunication should he push for the use of artificial contraceptives.

The church wanted to address reproductive health issues "in the spirit of dialogue and not confrontation," Odchimar said. "While the prevailing sentiment of a number of bishops was that of dismay and frustration over the reported stance of the President regarding artificial contraceptives, imposition of the canonical sanction has not been contemplated by the CBCP."

Monsignor Pedro Quitero, the CBCP's media director, told reporters that Odchimar was "misunderstood somewhere."

It is estimated by the Guttmacher Institute in the United States that in defiance of the church, as many as half a million women in the Philippines each year undergo abortions and that millions more use artificial birth control methods. However, millions more want to avail themselves of the means to control the number of children they bear and newspapers are rife with stories of expectant mothers who throw themselves down stairs in attempts to miscarry. Anecdotal evidence indicates that women whose mothers had as many as eight children are now opting to have perhaps just one or two, particularly in urban areas.

Interestingly, prominent economist Dr Bernardo Villegas, a devout Catholic and opponent of birth control legislation, estimated that the National Statistical Coordination Board had overestimated the number of babies counted during the 2000 census by nearly 150,000 on the assumption that the Philippine population pyramid would continue to grow instead of starting to turn inverted, as it has in other Asian countries. The United Nations Population Commission, Villegas wrote, estimates the Philippine population rate at somewhere between 1.6 to 1.8 percent annually.

Nonetheless, the country still has one of the highest birth rates in Asia. The 2010 population is estimated at 94.01 million, up from 76.5 million in the 2000 census, making it the 12th most populous nation in the world.

During an interview last week with the Philippines Inquirer, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte reiterated that President Aquino is for responsible parenthood and does not favor any one form of family planning. "It's the state's duty to provide assistance to couples who made the informed choice whether it be for natural family planning or for artificial family planning," she said.

Aquino has said he has not changed his position to provide couples an informed choice in planning their families. "We are all guided by our consciences," he said in a statement. "The state's duty is to educate our families as to their responsibilities and to respect their decisions if they are in conformity to our laws."

As Asia Sentinel reported in November 2009, proponents of the reproductive health bill, called "An Act Providing For National Policy On Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development and For Other Purposes" got further than they ever had before, with about 100 of the 238 members of the House of Representatives saying they backed the bill.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the former president, was an opponent of birth control and was staunchly backed by the bishops, who helped to drive her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, from office in 2001. Under her administration, supplies of public-sector contraception services dropped steeply. In addition, the administration of US President George W Bush prodded the United States Agency for International Development to stop providing free family planning supplies to the government.

Arroyo is now in the House of Representatives and can be expected to continue to oppose the bill. But many political observers say much of her power has melted away. Certainly, her advertised plans to take over the speakership of the house and continue her political sway were thwarted.