The leader of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, which routinely denounces abortion and contraception, yesterday urged clergy to listen more and condemn less, in the latest sign of a liberal shift in the powerful institution. Church leaders exert vast influence in the conservative country, Asia's bastion of Catholicism and the only state apart from the Vatican that still outlaws both divorce and terminations. But with many modern Filipino Catholics embracing once-taboo attitudes and the more conciliatory tone of the Vatican under Pope Francis, there are signs that the Philippine church is softening its stance. At an annual assembly of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Socrates Villegas said a change of tone would be a fitting welcome for the pope, who is expected to visit the Philippines next year. "Perhaps we can reconsider our approach to solving the problems of family and life by listening more to the wounded … rather than condemning divorce and abortion and contraception at every opportunity," he said. "Perhaps we can reach out to more people by … lowering our fences ... without being judgmental or punitive." In 2012, President Benigno Aquino signed a law requiring government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, in a major defeat for the church, which fought a 15-year campaign against any form of family planning laws. The law took effect this year after the Supreme Court ruled against a church-backed legal challenge. The Catholic Church, which counts more than 80 per cent of the Philippines' 100 million population as members, led street protests denouncing the law as "evil" and even threatened Aquino with excommunication. The pope last year said the church had become "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, in a major shift from his predecessor.