This is the Philippines, not Vatican City. And yet here we are, in 2016, the only country in the world other than the Holy See that still outlaws divorce.
Although our Constitution formally guarantees the separation of church and state, the Catholic establishment here wields considerable influence in politics, commenting on specific policies or helping select candidates for office. The Church has long opposed what it calls the “D.E.A.T.H.” bills — laws proposing to allow divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total population control and homosexual marriage — calling them “anti-family and anti-life.”
It wasn’t until 2012 that the Reproductive Health Law, which eases access to condoms and birth-control pills, was passed. Divorce, euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage remain illegal. Why? “We are more Catholic than the pope, especially this pope,” Michael L. Tan, an anthropologist and the chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, told me recently, referring to Pope Francis.
Some Filipino legislators have been trying to legalize divorce for almost three decades. Last month, when Representative Edcel Lagman, the principal author of the 2012 Reproductive Health Law, presented a new bill that would allow couples to divorce because of irreconcilable differences, many legislators were dismissive once again.
Mr. Lagman says the bill is designed to help women, especially the poor ones, who are trapped in unhappy, sometimes abusive, relations: It is meant to provide “a merciful liberation of the hapless wife from a long-dead marriage.” Yet Manny Pacquiao, the world-famous boxer cum rookie senator and a devout Christian, objected, among others, saying, “Divorce? Isn’t divorce just like annulment? Won’t you get the same result by having an annulment?”
Well, no, you don’t get the same result with divorce and annulment. (Or with legal separation: Formally separated couples aren’t allowed to marry again, and if the spouses have another partner, they risk being charged with having an extramarital affair, which is a crime.) Secular annulment, the only legally binding way to end a marriage in the Philippines, is nearly impossible to obtain and very expensive.
Neither infidelity nor physical abuse will do. Annulment generally requires a finding that one partner was “psychologically incapacitated” from the outset of the marriage — a standard so stringent that petitioners often pay psychologists or psychiatrists, lawyers and judges to manufacture the needed diagnoses. This torturous, often farcical, process can take several years and can cost more than $4,000, well beyond the reach of most people.
Now a majority of Filipinos say they want divorce to be legal. Some 60 percent are in favor of allowing couples with irreconcilable differences to divorce, according to a SWS survey released in 2015. That’s up from 50 percent of respondents in a similar poll taken in March 2011, and from 43 percent in a May 2005 poll (in which 45 percent said they were against divorce).
Legislators like Mr. Lagman hope the shift in public opinion, along with the election in May of the firebrand Rodrigo Duterte as president, will finally defeat the clergy-driven opposition to divorce in the Philippines.
Mr. Duterte is famous for disdaining dress codes, traditional diplomacy and religious dogma. This spring, he went on an expletive-ridden rant against the Catholic Church, accusing it of hypocrisy, corruption and immorality, and of meddling in politics. Mr. Duterte called the presidential election a “public referendum” between the bishops and himself. While most candidates were busy wooing powerful religious groups, he declared being “open” to legalizing same-sex marriage.
So far, however, his public position on divorce has seemed more conservative. Although his own first marriage was annulled, he has said, “You don’t have to love your wife to live together,” and “I’m not in favor of divorce for the sake of the children.”
On July 20, I asked Mr. Duterte’s longtime adviser Jesus Melchor Quitain, now special assistant to the president, about that statement and the new divorce bill. Mr. Quitain said that Mr. Duterte had made the remark “off the cuff” and that it didn’t reflect his official position. The president had yet to review the bill, Mr. Quitain said, and he is “open” to divorce.
When I asked about pressure from the Catholic Church, Mr. Quitain said Mr. Duterte was “a stickler for the separation of church and state” and that “he will not allow himself to be pressured by anyone or by any group.”
But what about the lawmakers who actually have to pass the divorce bill?
That the 2012 Reproductive Health Law was even passed signaled a drop in the Church’s influence over politicians. And waning church attendance suggests that organized religion is losing in popularity overall.
But Senator Pia Cayetano, who supports the divorce bill, says many of her fellow legislators still feel pressured: It’s easier for ordinary citizens to support divorce in anonymous surveys than for lawmakers to do so openly and risk the clergy’s wrath. In the past, priests have taken to their pulpits to lambast politicians. The conference of bishops even suggested once the possibility of excommunicating then-President Benigno S. Aquino III.
“Everyone should now understand that the deception is not over. The devil is at work. We are right at the center,” he said. “Those who pass this law will face the judgment of God.”
Mr. Lagman, the new divorce bill’s sponsor, cleverly casts the stakes of the law in religious terms. “Most marriages are supposed to be solemnized in heaven,” he has said, but “many marriages plummet into hell — in irremediable breakdown, spousal abuse, marital infidelity and psychological incapacity.” When will the Catholic Church realize that sins greater than the ones it condemns are committed every day because unhappy Filipinos don’t have the right to divorce?
Gin de Mesa Laranas is a news and documentary writer and filmmaker based in Manila.