Philippine court relaxes marriage annulment law: A sign of waning Church influence?

A new decision by the Philippine Supreme Court slightly loosens the rules of civil annulment on the grounds of psychological incapacity. What does this imply in the Southeast Asian nation, the last country outside of the Vatican where divorce remains illegal?

Aaron Favila/AP Photo/File
In this Jan. 8, 2015 photo, A Filipino couple walks out the door after their wedding at a Catholic church in Manila, Philippines. The Philippines is the only country in the world - aside from the Vatican - where divorce is forbidden, a testament to the enduring power of Roman Catholicism that has flourished since Spanish colonizers imposed it nearly 500 years ago.

The Philippines is the last major country in the world to refuse to allow divorce for its citizens.

That reality took a minor blow Monday when the country’s Supreme Court ruled to nullify one couple’s marriage on the grounds of psychological incapacity, saying that implementing the rule too literally could allow diagnosed sociopaths, schizophrenics, narcissists, and others to stay married, Philippine news site reported.

The 25-page ruling, written by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, reversed a September 2011 decision on an annulment case filed by a man who claimed his wife was failing her duties as a parent because of a gambling problem.

The high court ruled that the woman, in taking her kids with her to go gambling, showed that she was “subordinating [the children’s] needs for parenting to the gratification of her own personal escapist desires.” The reports declined to name the plaintiff and his wife.

To the rest of the world, this may not seem like much – and maybe it isn’t.

Still, the decision is remarkable in a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines, where the Church continues to influence much of the legislation around marriage and reproductive rights.

As Foreign Policy magazine put it:

The Philippines… is the last holdout among a group of staunchly Catholic countries where the church has fought hard to enforce its views on the sanctity of marriage. Pope Francis, who visited the Philippines [in January], has urged his bishops to take a more forgiving stance toward divorced Catholics, but this is a moot point in the Philippines: There is no such thing as a divorced Catholic.

The Philippine Family Code does allow for legal separation and annulment. But, as a CNN report noted, “none of these options address the needs of the majority of couples who are searching for freedom from each other.”

Legal separation lets the couple live apart and allows them to separate their assets, but prohibits them from remarrying. A declaration of nullity means the marriage effectively never took place, but only under specific circumstances, such as in cases of incestuous or polygamous unions.

The annulment process is notoriously complicated and prohibitively expensive, according to The Washington Post. The usual reasons for divorce – infidelity, physical or psychological abuse, irreconcilable differences – cannot be the basis for a civil annulment proceeding.

“It’s a travesty of the justice system,” Philippine Sen. Pia Cayetano, who holds that divorce is a basic human right, told the Post.

Efforts to legalize divorce in the Philippines, including a bill that is currently before the legislature, have faced a rejection campaign by the Catholic Church, which continues to wield considerable influence in Philippine society. More than 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic.

"Being a country where divorce is not legal is an honor that every Filipino should be proud of,” one archbishop emeritus said in a statement. “Love for the family is the heart of Filipino cultural identity and cannot be destroyed by divorce.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has said that “divorce is a no-no” in the Philippines. He added that he doesn’t want the country to become like Las Vegas, where “you get married in the morning [and] you get divorced in the afternoon.”

Even in relaxing the guidelines for annulment on the grounds of psychological incapacity, the Philippine Supreme Court used Church language. The high court contended that it was actually “protecting the sanctity of marriage, because [the court’s decision] refuses to allow a person afflicted with a psychological disorder, who cannot comply with or assume the essential marital obligations, from remaining in that sacred bond.”

Yet there have been signs of what might be considered the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. In 2012, the same President Aquino signed a bill – hotly contested by Catholic leaders – that expanded access to birth control and sex education for the country’s poorest.

A 2014 poll by the Social Weather Stations, a Philippine survey institute, found that more than 70 percent of Filipinos approved of the bill.

Weekly church attendance among Filipinos has dropped by nearly half in recent decades, from 64 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2013, according to the same survey group.

“[T]here ought to be great concern,” Fr. Joel Tabora, a Jesuit and professor at a prominent Philippine university, wrote in a blog post that discussed efforts to find a balance between modern ideas and Catholic faith. “People have been leaving the Catholic Church. People are about to leave the Church.”

“People are tired of being preached at, of being treated as if they were younger than adolescents, of being lectured, of being scolded, of being dictated upon,” he added.

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