Church may be heading for defeat on birth control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 October, 2010, 12:00am

Carlos Celdran is a fixture in the old Intramuros district of Manila. A celebrity tour guide, Celdran has devoted himself to providing 'irreverent' views of Philippine history and society on his guided walks.

Take his recent foray into historic Manila Cathedral, which has added fuel to the debate over the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control in this impoverished nation. Dressed in a black suit and top hat like national hero Jose Rizal, he went to the front of the altar during a Friday service and began shouting: 'Stop involving yourselves in politics.'

Among the targets of his tirade were Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales. Celdran waved a placard with a single word: 'Damaso', the name of the wicked priest in Rizal's satirical novels who symbolises the crassness, greed and corrupting power of the church during three centuries of Spanish rule.

Celdran's protest was a lively sideshow to the latest eruption in a long-running national debate, with President Benigno Aquino locked in a standoff with the church over his pledge to make artificial contraceptives freely available to the poor.

It's a promise that has earned suggestions of excommunication for Aquino, with the church spearheading a campaign to shoot down a Reproductive Health Law that follows through on his campaign pledges.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said Celdran's recent protest was 'but the tip of the iceberg'. Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, said the church was 'overestimating' its influence on this hot-button issue.

Although eight out of every 10 Filipinos are Catholic, Casiple said most Filipinos, including 'a considerable number of Catholic nuns and priests', now support the passage of the law, which would enable the state to provide married couples with artificial birth control and would allow sex education in state schools.

Since 1989, the church has blocked efforts to pass legislation intended to slow population growth. The Philippines is the 12th most populous country in the world and its 2.04 per cent annual birth rate - which would double the population in 34 years - has been partly blamed for widespread poverty.

In the recent presidential election, the church refused to support Aquino because he promised to provide 'a range of options and information to couples, natural family planning and modern methods'.

Aquino, an economics graduate from Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, said the need was urgent: 'In 1986, our country had a population of about 50 million. We are now, arguably, between 90 to 95 million.'

The church-endorsed candidate, John Carlos de los Reyes, finished last in the nine-way race.

Casiple said: 'My own reading is, if such a bill got approved in Congress, he [Aquino] will sign it [into law].' Aquino co-authored similar, but failed, measures when he was in the House and the Senate.

Recent developments bear Casiple out. A survey by private pollster Social Weather Stations this year found seven in 10 of 2,100 respondents would vote for a president who supported artificial contraceptives.

Fourteen Ateneo faculty members also issued a position paper siding with Aquino and asserting that Catholics can back such legislation 'in good conscience'. The professors said there was a correlation between the high rates of maternal deaths (162 per 100,000 births in the year 2000) and abortions (473,400 women in 2000) to the lack of freely available contraceptive methods and to widespread ignorance of such methods.

Last week, when Aquino was in San Francisco, he repeated his stand, saying couples could best decide for themselves what type of birth control they used, while the 'government might provide assistance to those who are without means if they want to employ a particular method'.

This statement displeased Bishop Nereo Odchimar, head of the church's policymaking body, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). When asked on Catholic radio station Veritas if Aquino could be excommunicated for giving away contraceptives, the prelate replied: 'That is a possibility ... [but] we will exhaust all means... Right now it is a proximate possibility.'

The clergy backtracked on the excommunication suggestion at the weekend. However, CBCP secretary general Juanito Figura said 'civil disobedience is a moral option' to block any legislation.

Yesterday Aquino promised to talk with the bishops to explain why he felt the state is obliged 'to educate all of its citizens as to their choices'.

Senator Joker Arroyo has cautioned the church against issuing threats. He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer the church may find its flock straying away on the issue. 'Will the church have the guts to excommunicate the majority of congressmen and senators who vote for it?'

As for Celdran, church officials were not the only ones to take offence at his interjection. Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim was at the service and ordered his arrest. Celdran was charged with violating an obscure law - that of offending religious feelings - and released on bail the next day.