PRESIDENT Duterte’s Executive Order No. 12 launching a determined, government-backed birth-control program that implements most of the provisions of the historic Reproductive Health Law of 2012 is another major indication that at last, the Catholic Church’s role in the realm reserved for the State is irreversibly in decline.
Mainly because of the Church’s opposition, and a succession of Philippine Presidents’-especially Corazon Aquino’s-servility to it for theological or political reasons, we have been among the last nations on the planet to admit the incontrovertible reality that state-sponsored birth control, especially for the poor, is an absolute necessity in this day and age, and to make available to the poor contraceptives as their right.
Without Catholic dogma indeed, it’s not too difficult to see that the poor, unlike the rich, can’t afford condoms of P20 each, used presumably only once and at the very least three times a week. And for the poor, sex would probably be their only means for pleasure.
A less-than-confident President, or one believing that the Church is a crucial political ally, would have just left the RH Law unimplemented, and allowed the widespread, but certainly false notion, that the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. (It didn’t for most of it, but ruled unconstitutional eight of its provisions, which however could be skirted without weakening the birth-control program.)
I am sure the Duterte government would be able to use its moral suasion, and legal resources, to convince the Supreme Court’s Second Division, headed by Senior Justice Antonio Carpio to lift its temporary restraining order on the health department’s distribution and sale of sub-dermal implants, a contraceptive that can prevent pregnancies for up to 3 years. This would jump-start the country’s much-delayed birth-control program, as the health department had already bought 400,000 of these at P500, or one-tenth of its P5,000 market price, with the financial assistance of Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation.
While of course-as all religions from antiquity have done-the Catholic Church has provided social stability, and even as some arguably claim, some basic morality, it has been inarguably a reactionary institution that has been a bulwark of the Philippine oligarchy, in much the same way that it has been in countries with very exploitative class structures as those in Latin America.
This idea has even been etched as early as in our national hero Jose Rizal’s brilliant novels that provided the vision for the nation, the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The villain in these novels is not some Spanish colonial official nor his local proxy elite, the gobernadorcillo. Rather, it was a Franciscan friar Padre Damaso-Rizal’s unmistakable embodiment of the Catholic Church-who brought down misery on the novel’s hero, Crisostomo Ibarra, and his father, Don Rafael. It is not insignificant indeed that the Noli’s embodiment of the Filipino elite, the rich landowner but pro-poor Ibarra, was persecuted by the Franciscan.
Despite Noli and Fili, and no matter how much we revered these brilliant novels that became the foundations of our nationhood, the Padre Damasos have merely evolved throughout the post-colonial period as the communities’ parish priests and the Church’s cardinals and bishops. They provided comfort to the poor-that there’d be a better place for them in the afterlife, so they just have to be patient and not rebel against the ruling class. If your lives are in misery, you just have to demonstrate more fervor for the Lord, such as joining and risking life and limb at the annual Black Nazarene procession.
On the other hand, the Church provided insurance to the ruling class, that their contributions to the Church would buy them their visas to heaven. Even in this vale of tears, a wedding at the Manila Cathedral, yours for a P100,000 donation, would ensure your children’s happy marriage, or so the implicit Church message has been.
The decline in Church influence had started in the 1970s, with the strongman Marcos largely ignoring it for most of his regime, and then became angry with it because of the migration of young Latin American “liberation theology” priests to the Communist Party.
The Church was reinvigorated by the People Power revolt and the rise of the Yellow Cult led by Corazon Aquino for several reasons.
The politically astute Jaime Cardinal Sin had sensed the shift in political winds after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, after supporting Marcos since 1973 when he replaced the pro-Marcos Rufino Cardinal Santos. The declassified US documents (see my column of December 5 – “Ninoy Aquino: Hero or miscalculating ‘throne’ gamer?”) showed that it was Sin who had encouraged Aquino to return home to trigger a political crisis by giving him false information that Marcos’ kidney transplant early that year was a failure and that he was dying soon.
And it was Sin of course who called on urban Filipinos to go to Camp Crame to function as human shields in case Marcos decided to militarily move against Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Vice Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos and their cabal who were caught planning a coup against the strongman.
Sin, the Church, Cory and probably her American PR advisers cleverly injected religious imagery into the revolt that exploited Filipinos’ religious sentiments in order to fire up the people power movement: Cory holed up in the Carmelite Monastery in Cebu praying as the revolution started; nuns praying the rosary and even carrying Virgin Mary statuettes to counter the tanks sent my Marcos (as ancient peoples carried their war gods to battle); and spreading the ridiculous notion that it was Mama Mary who protected the people-power revolutionaries.
And as soon as they got enough donors donating, the Church and the Yellow Cult built in 1989 on a chapel fronting Chinese-Filipino tycoon John Gokongwei’s mall, what it calculated would be a monument to assure their control of the State for generations: the EDSA Shrine, whose official name is “The Shrine of Mary, Queen of Peace, Our Lady of EDSA.” Our Lady of EDSA?
That title of course sounds like the “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and “Our Lady of Fatima”, referring to places where the Church officially confirmed that the Virgin Mary beamed down to earth to meet in person a Mexican Indian and poor teenagers of a shepherd family, respectively.
While I’m not aware that the Vatican has officially confirmed that the mass demonstration at Camp Crame that defended military mutineers was a miracle, and that the Virgin materialized in that avenue, that Our-Lady-of-EDSA thing is a very clever propaganda trick many Filipinos, even highly educated ones, fervently believed in: that the fall of Marcos and the rise of the Yellow Cult was sanctioned by God himself through his mother, just as rulers of ancient times were appointed by the Deity. And of course, it is the Catholic Church that God works through. Its power and influence from the Spanish period, diminished by Marcos, was restored by EDSA I.
Despite being of another Christian sect, President Fidel Ramos, totally beholden to Cory for his presidential election and desperate to shed off his past as Marcos’ henchman, maintained the momentum of the Church’s resurrection as a political force. President Estrada wasn’t as servile to it, not surprising because of his virtual polygamy that violated Church dogma. President Arroyo was a devout Catholic who heard mass daily, although she was bold enough to move away from it, when it betrayed her during the so-called Hyatt 5 event in 2005 that tried to overthrow her. She angrily told Cory who had told her that Cardinal Sin also wanted her to step down: “Even if the Pope tells me to, I will not abandon my post Filipinos elected me to.”
Cory died in 2009, less than a year to the 2010 elections, which her son exploited with Filipinos’ penchant for sympathy votes. There was a massive disinformation against Arroyo as corrupt, most probably with the support of the US that didn’t like her closeness to China. Candidate Manuel Villar was portrayed as a senator who used his position to advance his property conglomerate’s interests. As a result, Cory’s mediocre son “Noynoy” got to be President , and with him the Yellow Cult attempted to restore the Church’s influence. However, surprisingly, Noynoy defied the Church and backed the Reproductive Health Law’s passage in 2012.
Duterte’s cursing of the Pope, even if only in jest, revealed that he wasn’t at the very least a practicing Catholic, and was even disdainful of the Church, its dogmas and its political meddling. Subsequent events have certainly proved this, with the Church campaigning-unsuccessfully-before and after the elections against Duterte for his disregard for human life in his war against illegal drugs.
Despite everything, there is progress in this unlucky country of ours. The role and influence of the Catholic Church over this nation has diminished. We are moving towards the modern age.