Pope Francis Confronts a Philippine Church Losing its Hold

Pope Francis is expected to touch down in the Philippines on Jan. 15 for a three-day visit to what is by far the most solidly Catholic country in Asia if not the world, one which claims that 82.9 percent of its 100 million population are Roman Catholic.

The reception is likely to be tumultuous, with an estimated 6 million people expected to stampede to see him. Even before the visit, chaos was growing, with certain Metro Manila roads closed at 5 pm Jan. 12 for a dry run on his arrival route, clogging an already congested traffic scene at rush hour. He is expected to meet with President Benigno S. Aquino III and also to fly to Leyte, the island in the Visayas that was devastated in November 2013 by Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, taking at least 6,300 lives and laving another 1,000 missing.

The rapture that greets the pope, the first pontiff selected from outside Europe since Gregory III of Syria some 1,272 years earlier, is expected to be enormous. It is the first visit by a pope since the visit of John Paul II in 1995 and is expected to center on climate change, income inequality and other issues. To give an idea of the tumult, the visit was presaged by the unrelated annual procession of the Black Nazarene last Friday involving a black statue of Jesus, which drew hundreds of thousands of people. At least two died and the Red Cross said some 500 were treated for cuts and bruises.

But for all that, Pope Francis confronts a church that is losing its hold on its adherents because of policies on the part of the Catholic Bishops Council of the Philippines (CBCP) that are increasingly ignored. In the past, the church had outsize power, helping to end the 21-year reign of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and supporting the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Today, however, there is growing irritation with the church’s interference in politics, with one activist arrested in 2010 for disrupting a meeting in the Manila Cathedral to demand that the assembled priests leave politics alone. The church hierarchy in the past has been associated with some of the worst abuses of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, backing her in a massive vote scandal that could have cost her the presidency in the 2004 general election by supporting congressmen who thwarted impeachment bids against her. Seven of the bishops were recipients of gifts of Pajero SUVs from the administration and many church officials allegedly were passed cash. The resultant scandal was called “Pajeros for Priests."

Because of the church’s implacable opposition, the Philippines remains the only country on earth that has not legalized divorce. However, legions of couples are separated and annulment is available for a price. Half of those who marry today do so in civil ceremonies or don’t wed at all, corresponding with statistics that show that 20 percent of the country’s births are out of wedlock, although families are likely to baptize their children within the church. Evangelical churches have also gained strength in recent decades.

Thus, despite the outpouring of emotion expected for Pope Francis, the church’s power is waning. It fought for 14 years to stop a birth control bill. But despite a no-holds-barred campaign in the 2012 elections to turn lawmakers out of office who voted for a controversial Family Planning and Reproductive Health Act, the voters didn’t listen.

Some 75 percent of Catholics ignored the weekly denunciations of the CBCP and local priests from the pulpit against the act, which mandates the teaching of population control and the widespread distribution of birth control devices. The Guttmacher Institute, in a recent report, found that 37 percent of all births are either not wanted at the time of pregnancy or not wanted at all. Some 54 percent of all pregnancies are unintended. Women give birth to an average 3.3 children despite the fact that women want only an average of 2.4 children. In the cities and among the middle classes, the birthrate is tending down.

Despite the passage of the reproductive health act in December 2012 the church carried on a year-long effort to block it in the courts and has been extremely active in efforts to sabotage birth control information and devices at the local level.

The 78-year-old pontiff, who has done much to revitalize the church across the world, is thus hoped to be able to connect with the millions of Catholics disaffected by the church’s social policies. The pope has hinted at a live-and-let-live attitude towards gays and even atheists and has made statements about income disparity that have alarmed social conservatives, particularly in the United States, who have accused him of socialist tendencies.

Francis is expected to hold the biggest event of the visit, a holy mass at Manila’s Rizal Park, which is expected to draw more than 1 million people. As with the Black Nazarene procession last Friday, extensive security arrangements are in place. While Muslim activists in Mindanao have issued no specific threats, violent groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Abu Sayyaf have plagued the south of the country.

Francis, however, has tended to eschew the “Popemobile,” the bulletproof glass-enclosed vehicle developed after an assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot Pope John Paul II four times in May 1981. He will be riding in what amounts to a modified Jeepney, although it isn’t equipped with bulletproof glass, a concern for security forces.

During the 1995 visit of Pope John Paul II to Manila, two of Al Qaeda’s top operatives – Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – plotted an attack on the pontiff from a Manila apartment complex. The planned attack, which never took place, reportedly involved placing a suicide bomber dressed as a priest near the Pope’s route.