The Roman Catholic Church suffered its most crushing defeat in its collision with the Philippine state in 13 years when Congress decisively voted on Monday to pass the Malacañang-certified reproductive health bill providing government funding for contraceptives and sex education in schools.
The bill had been languishing for more than a decade in Congress, where it had been stubbornly blocked by the politically influential Catholic Church. The breakthrough came after the Aquino administration threw the full weight of its resources behind the bill, including denial of pork barrel to members of Congress opposing it. President Aquino gave the bill a powerful push by certifying it as urgent.
The Senate voted 11-5, despite the fact that its leadership (Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Majority Leader Tito Sotto) had teamed up to oppose the measure. The House voted 133-79-7 to pass its own version of the bill on final reading, increasing the winning margin to 54. It voted 113-104-3 on second reading on Thursday. The two chambers subsequently ratified the respective reports in the bicameral meetings. The ratified legislation is due for transmittal to the President for signature into law.
The breakthrough of the legislation confirmed the dictum in Philippine politics that what the President badly wants, he gets. This emphasizes the reality that in his administration, Mr. Aquino has succeeded in subordinating the legislature to pass measures he wants passed, including his success in having the impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona removed by the Senate acting as an impeachment tribunal.
Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes alleged that Mr. Aquino “bribed” members of the House to vote in favor of the RH bill. He claimed that he personally knew of five lawmakers who consistently voted against the bill but changed their position after Malacañang threatened to withdraw their pork barrel. The President had held a series of meetings with House members ahead of his urgent certification of the bill to the legislature for action. In those meetings he lobbied for their support. The bishops had warned members of Congress who supported the bill of political retaliation in the 2013 midterm elections. But these warnings apparently had little effect in swaying them to bend to the Church’s appeal, which was based on arguments that the bill, especially its provisions on public funding of contraceptives, could lead to promiscuity or interference in the natural process of reproduction. The government’s argument is anchored on the economic consequences of large families—that the management and curtailment of explosive population growth are antipoverty measures.
The arguments seem to have more resonance among the poor with large families to feed and educate than the abstract notions on the immorality of using contraceptives to curb population growth. Withholding pork barrel from congressmen opposing the bill in the face of next year’s elections is a more potent threat to their political survival than the threats of the bishops. In the history of church-state relations in Philippine democracy, politicians who oppose Church policy in favor of state policy had seldom been hurt by their disobedience to Church tenets.
For instance, politicians like Claro M. Recto and Jose P. Laurel, did not suffer political damage for actively sponsoring legislation requiring compulsory reading of Jose Rizal’s novels “Noli Me Tangere and “El Filibusterismo.” The Church lost in the showdown on this issue. The Church should beware of the strong undercurrent of the anticlerical tradition of the Philippine Revolution against Spanish rule—a tradition of separation between church and state fostered by American-style democracy.
In the showdown with the Church on the RH bill, the Aquino administration fed on this anticlerical tradition. Church interventions in state affairs have proved to be more successful and received wide public support on issues concerning human rights and political abuses.
The most outstanding example is the Church’s intervention in the People Power Revolution of 1986. Under the interventionist leadership of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Church took the lead in opposing and checking the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship and the military.
The Church, with its infrastructure of parishes in rural areas, acted as a parallel institutional framework to check the abuses of the Marcos regime, following the collapse of opposition parties and institutions acting as agents of freedom of the press and assembly.
When the military mutiny against Marcos broke out in February 1986, Cardinal Sin and the religious groups formed the nucleus of a coalition between the Church and the opposition led by Cory Aquino and civil-society anti-Marcos activists, They also rallied support for the military rebels led by Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel V. Ramos. This alliance became the foundation of the People Power movement that dominated the development of the post-Marcos democracy. In this role, Church intervention in state affairs was at its best and most welcomed by the Filipino people. It was the height of the influence and power of the Church in the development of democracy.
Since then, the Church’s influence has waned. It cannot be regained by interventions related to population growth and its implications on economy growth and poverty.