Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fall of the Philippines?

Hard to believe, but it won't be long before another year of the Simbang Gabi -- mid-December's traditional pre-dawn novena of Masses that packs churches in the Philippines (and, increasingly, on these shores) beyond their doors -- breaks out. Yet while the swelling crowds won't likely be changing this year, the long-confident influence of the country's church leadership appears to have reached a significant tipping point.

The backdrop for one of human history's largest gatherings -- 5 million in Manila as John Paul II closed out 1995's World Youth Day there -- and famed for its mass demonstrations of popular piety, the island nation could arguably lay claim to the title "world's most-Catholic country"; 80% of its 70 million people identify as such, and their level and intensity of observance has few, if any, equals on the global church's scene.

One of two majority-Christian countries in Asia (alongside East Timor), the church's prominence in numbers and fervor has driven its share of storied contributions to Filipino history, and then some. After years of being led by Spanish, American and Irish hierarchs, the first native archbishop of Manila didn't ascend to the post until 1949, but the homegrown prelates found little difficulty in marshalling their resources of people and clout for the building, and sometimes the transformation, of society, its climax coming with the late Cardinal Jaime Sin's effective command of the 1986 "People Power" revolution that toppled the Marcos regime in less than 72 hours.

Revered as a leader of the state and champion of the people, Sin died in 2005. Just three years later -- with his successor in the capital already a year past retirement age -- the nation's bishops are encountering rare resistance on their opposition to a reproductive health measure that'd loosen up access to contraceptives.

With the bill's support led by a growing coalition of other Christian groups alongside business and policy interests, as the national press reports that the hierarchy's position finds it "increasingly isolated," at least some of its members aren't taking the rebuke lying down:
The bastion of opposition to the bill, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, has not conceded the fight, and a ranking member yesterday urged lawmakers who support the bill to resign and “stop pretending they are representing the people.”

Mati, Davao, Bishop Patricio Alo said these lawmakers should listen to their constituents, referring to the fact that most Filipinos are nominal Catholics.

But [bill sponsor Edcel] Lagman countered that Alo was refuseing to see that many Catholics wanted to control their fertility and plan their families.

He added that 90 percent of Catholics in a recent Pulse Asia survey said the state should finance the use of modern contraceptives, which are expressly prohibited by the Church.

All the authors and the religious groups supporting the bill reject abortion as a method of family planning, but they realize something must be done to slow down population growth, estimated at about two million babies a year....

In a scathing rebuff against the Catholic lobby, the Iglesia leaders urged their members to reject the “natural method” supported by Catholic bishops, nuns and ultra-conservative lay organizations as the acceptable alternative to modern methods of family planning such as the use of condoms, contraceptives and injectables.

The influential Catholic Church, through the Couples for Christ, has used P50 million (US$1 million) in state funds to exclusively promote the natural method of family planning. Nuns and members of the Catholic Women’s League have also gone to Congress to denounce the proponents of the bill.

But big business, led by the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, has been among the first to throw its support behind the bill.
Calling the measure "destructive," the bishops' top brass are keeping confident that, should the bill pass, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would veto it. To shore up Catholic support, Arroyo previously pledged herself to a pro-NFP platform.