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Commentary

To have and to control

It is easy to understand why the Church remains shut to divorce. They articulate a conception of ecclesiastical love that is at once eloquent and sanctimonious. But their uncompromising affirmation does not hold holy water.

If the Church insists on asserting itself into marriage and family life, then it must also bear the burden of exercising that freedom. It is wholly nonsensical for religion to make demands on difficult dilemmas but then hide behind liberty of conscience when its theological intrusion is scrutinized. The Church is not off limits to social justice.

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Social justice is fairly straightforward. We have intrinsic value because we exist, and we are entitled to equal respect and regard in accordance with that human dignity. And right away, two principles become apparent. We are not to be used as a means for others to fulfill their own dignity. And second, individual choice is central to active striving toward opportunities to plan our own life, which may or may not involve God.

The existence of God is a profound question. But that is the advantage of religion. Zealous believers can concretize a whole set of creeds without having to explicitly answer that that is how God dictated we should behave—as opposed to, say, what fetish worshippers wanted for us. That God has prescribed divine edicts is a convenient and elementary explanation that saves the Church the trouble of looking into any other equally valid ways of living a good life.

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The power, influence, and cash box of the Church count for something, but their moral vagueness counts for everything. For the Church, we have value because we are the means for their paternalistic and obtuse priorities. We are not ends in ourselves. We do not have inherent value as we are. Instead, we matter for the Church as long as we have the essential qualifications of heterosexual marriage and naturally conceived biological children.

Any aberration is devalued in gradation, with same-sex relationships and abortion morally equivalent to degenerates, or possibly worse. Divorce is probably not as vile, but still firmly unacceptable.

The Church has created conditions by which it defends its existence. While human liberties expand and progress, the Church relies on the very aegis of its own tradition that effectively boils down to, “Because God says so.” For the Church, not being married means Filipinos are missing out on something amazing and divine.

It willingly chooses to ignore its poor record on social justice. We can, for example, make a strong case that in the Philippines, poverty feeds and sustains the Church. Marriage is, historically, institutionalized inequality, and the Church thrives on inequality. Divorce is a direct threat to its livelihood.

The Church stands up for religious liberty but opposes liberty in other grounds. It is fine that religious leaders and their community sheep cannot, and may never, accept some aspects of public policies and government institutions. They make persuasive arguments that should be heard and considered. Religious affiliation and expression are basic tenets of a thriving democracy.

However, the Church cannot see other plausible paths to human dignity. And so, by design it suppresses alternative ways of living in moral goodness. It struggles to honor the possibility, for instance, that Filipinos can believe in the existence of God and in the divine embodiment of Christ—two essential axioms of Christianity—while flourishing as law-abiding, capable and virtuous divorced adults. Rather, the Church demands a complete ordering of Filipinos in its own image and likeness.

The proposed divorce bill in the House has cleared a committee-level hurdle. It will not be so lucky in the Senate. There, politicians and legislative wonks who believe in the separation of Church and State are ultimately and predictably subservient to religious propaganda.

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The Church will uphold religious freedom at the expense of social justice.

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Dr. Ronald del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.

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