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Editorial

Profound shift in Filipinos’ attitudes

/ 05:18 AM March 24, 2018

For the first time in Philippine history, a bill legalizing divorce has made it through Congress—or at least half of it. By a vote of 134-57-2, the House of Representatives recently approved on third and final reading House Bill No. 7303 or the Absolute Divorce bill, which seeks to offer Filipino couples an easier and cheaper option to dissolve their marriage than through annulment.

This is the farthest any measure of this sort has managed to reach; all previous attempts had invariably fallen by the wayside in the face of withering opposition from the Catholic Church and conservative sectors of the public. But this time—despite an expressed resistance to the bill by President Duterte himself, who said he was concerned about its possible effects on the welfare of children and neglected spouses—HB 7303 passed with considerable bipartisan support in the House.

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It’s still a long way, though, from becoming law. It now goes to the Senate, which, with no counterpart measure, has to start from scratch to hammer out a version that would then be reconciled with the House bill at the bicameral conference committee. Senate President Aquilino  Pimentel III was quoted as saying: “Dissolution of marriage is a new concept; hence, give us time to study it.” As to how much time that would  take, who knows? According to Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto, when the chamber resumes its sessions in May, the priority work would be  the Bangsamoro Basic Law; there is also the looming impeachment trial of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Clearly, divorce proponents and supporters would have to wait a bit more. But that it has even reached this point signals a profound historic shift in Filipinos’ attitudes toward this issue. The Philippines’ Catholic population has long taken pride in the country’s obstinate position as among the world’s last bastions of absolute marriage; the Vatican is the only other state with no divorce law.

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But the times appear to be changing. The Church’s response to the bill’s passage in the House has been uncharacteristically muted, consisting only of a statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines reiterating its defense of the sacredness of the family. More notable has been a new survey showing that more Filipinos “strongly agree” with legalizing divorce than are against it; 39 percent of 1,200 respondents from urban and rural areas nationwide expressed robust support for it, plus another 13 percent who said they “somewhat agree.” The “strongly disagree” side stood at 35 percent. Tellingly, female respondents looked more favorably at the idea, at 43 percent.

The twist in this survey? It was conducted by the Church-run Radio Veritas. The results, said Radio Veritas president Fr. Anton Pascual, was “a wake-up call and a big challenge to the Catholic Church,” whose doctrinaire opposition to divorce—as with reproductive health—now appears to be increasingly out of touch with the concerns and challenges of the modern Filipino populace.

Today’s Opinion section also carries a commentary by another priest—Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM, who has been in the ministry for 50 years. His nuanced take on this hot-button topic is worth quoting: “If we Catholics are prolife, why are we so absolutely against divorce, which would free difficult, dysfunctional families from the misery of an unhappy marriage? Is such a marriage not a ‘death sentence’ to the couple and their children? …  Where is the mercy and compassion we preach when we fail to see the unhappiness in dysfunctional marriages [and] the children exposed to the infidelities and even violence of their parents? … Should we not adjust our pastoral practices to the reality of our people, and not to an ideal that is desired, but not within the reach of so many, even as we affirm couples who are faithful?”

Interesting times are ahead for the evolving Filipino family and society.

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