Aaron Favila/AP
Filipino Catholics receive communion during a mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in suburban Paranaque, south of Manila, Philippines on Sunday.

Power of the Catholic Church slipping in Philippines

About 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and they traditionally looked to the church for political and moral guidance. Recent reforms, however, are overriding church positions.

As the Vatican commences its Papal Conclave in Rome, a test of the Catholic Church’s 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 country’s Spanish colonial history. But church critics here say that now is the time to put the nation’s devout Catholic past behind them and move toward a more secular state.              

Some analysts point out that just as in other Roman Catholic majority countries in Europe and South America, the Church’s 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. “It’s 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.”

“They’ve been able to shoot down centuries of Catholic doctrine with just one bill,” Shirley adds. “This is really a challenge to the church’s power.” 

The church may have believed that the nation’s 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 Church’s stance on contraception. And that was enough to compel Aquino and other lawmakers to challenge the Archdiocese’s 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 Church’s 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. “You get it from television [and social] networking, and you have a lot of Western or non-Filipino ideas coming into the country.”

But the Catholic Church of the Philippines has not given up the fight for influence.

Ahead of Congressional elections this spring, clergy have launched a campaign against the lawmakers who voted in favor of the Reproductive Health Law. Recently, a bishop in Bacolod City hung a poster on the side of a cathedral that labels politicians as on Team Life (those who vetoed the bill) or Team Death (those who supported it).

“They are really turning up the heat on these guys, associating the bill with sin and death, against God, unnatural, and immorality, all the words they can throw out,” Shirley says. It’s still possible, he says, that the church might be able to use this occasion to reenergize its base and win back some of its influence that’s been eroded over the years.

At a crossroads

Both the Archdiocese of Manila as well as the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines were unable to provide a representative for interview at the time of writing. But even some devout Catholics say that the church’s doctrinal stances have, in part, turned some of the flock away. And other denominations with alternative doctrine are welcoming them in.  

“The church is in a crossroads today, absolutely. The parish priests are losing their members to the charismatic groups. The influence of the priests is waning, the influence of the lay preachers is there,” says Anthony Perez, founder of the Catholic advocacy group Filipinos For Life. He admits that the church just doesn't have the same appeal it used to, and they must find new ways to compete with Protestants and engage those who feel they are slipping away from Catholicism. “The church has to recognize the change of paradigm.”

Mr. Perez says groups like his are stepping in to help the church win back some of its lost influence. In February, Filipinos For Life and a number of other Catholic groups filed a petition with the Supreme Court to have the Reproductive Health Law declared unconstitutional.

Activist Tani doesn’t think the Church will regain any lost ground in the elections. Filipinos have moved on, he says.

“Even though the Philippines is predominantly Catholic, it does not mean we agree or obey whatever the clergy tells us to do,” he says. “They [the clergy] has no clout in telling people who to vote for.”

Tani says the success of the Reproductive Health Law has set the stage to take on other Catholic taboos enshrined into Philippine law. His organization has teamed with some legislators to legalize divorce, and he says he sees another battle over morality looming.

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