From EDSA to RH: Church clout weakens in PH

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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From EDSA to RH: Church clout weakens in PH
CBCP president Archbishop Socrates Villegas, however, tells Rappler that the Catholic Church ‘should not really have a political clout’

MANILA, Philippines – Up to 10,000 people came. Catholic leaders spoke onstage. The huge anti-government protest was held along the iconic EDSA highway, the site of popular uprisings that ousted two Philippine presidents. 

The rally had familiar elements, but the outcome was different. 

Unlike successful protests led by the Catholic Church, the rally on August 4, 2012, failed to convince lawmakers to junk the Reproductive Health (RH) bill. The proposed measure sought government funding for contraceptives. 

Father Xavier Alpasa, head of the Jesuit-led sociopolitical group Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), said this failure was a sign of the Catholic Church’s weakening clout in politics. 

This comes 30 years after the Catholic Church helped in toppling dictator Ferdinand Marcos through the EDSA People Power Revolution that ended on February 25, 1986. (READ: EDSA: ‘Hand of God’ seen from the House of Sin)

The wider context is the loosening grip of the Catholic Church on its flock in general. 

For one, a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey in 2013 said only 37% of Catholics go to Church weekly, as compared to 64% in 1991. 

The same survey said 9% of Catholics sometimes think of leaving the Catholic Church.

Alpasa, a social entrepreneur, said he made his statement as a business professor who tends to “look at the results.”

He said he “must admit and frankly confess” that the RH issue “became a battle of forces.” 

Noong People Power, napatalsik ang isang matagal at makapangyarihan na pinuno. Pero ito, nakita talaga na naisabatas ang RH,” Alpasa said in an interview with Rappler. (During People Power, we ousted a long-sitting and powerful leader. But here, we saw that the RH bill was passed.)

So sa mga Church figures na nagsalita tungkol dito, nasubok at nakitang hindi naisakatuparan ‘yung kinakampanya. Kaya parang sa akin…talagang mas mahina siya kumpara doon sa clout noong People Power,” he said. (So the Church figures who spoke on this issue had been tested, and we saw that they failed to accomplish their campaign. So for me…it was really weaker compared to the clout during People Power.)

Cardinal Tagle backed the rally, too

The rally in August 2012 was seen as a failure because the Catholic Church, for one, went all out for that protest. 

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, then vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), sent a message read by former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta “Tita” de Villa during the rally. 

“Contraception is corruption,” Villegas said in the statement heard by thousands of people under intermittent rain. 

Villegas was the long-time private secretary of the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, a Catholic leader who wielded much influence in politics. Sin was the voice that urged Filipinos on February 22, 1986, to troop to EDSA to protect defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and vice military chief Fidel Ramos, who had defected from Marcos. 

In his message for the rally in August 2012, Villegas also reportedly took a swipe at President Benigno Aquino III, the son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino, who became president after the EDSA Revolution. 

Villegas referred to Mr Aquino’s campaign slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” (If no one is corrupt, no one is poor)

“If more babies are the cause of poverty, are we now saying kung walang anak, walang mahirap (if there is no child, no one is poor)? It does not rhyme because it is not correct. We can have more classrooms, more food, more jobs if we would be less corrupt. Send out the corrupt official and not the baby,” Villegas said as quoted by the Philippine Star.

No less than Sin’s successor, current Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, backed the rally and warned against the RH bill. 

More than 4 months later, however, Aquino signed the RH bill into law. 

Critics challenged it before the Supreme Court (SC), but the SC upheld it in April 2014.

On the same day that the SC announced this decision, Villegas, already the president of the CBCP, released a statement asserting that the RH law is “unjust.” 

Despite this, the CBCP president said Catholics should stop being an “RH-law-reactionary group.” The Church should have a “positive message,” he added, even as Catholic hardliners called for civil disobedience. 

Pacquiao’s ‘counterproductive’ example

Alpasa said that, in the context of the RH law, the clout of the Catholic Church weakened because of the changing context of the world. 

He mentioned millennials as an example.

Ang mga bata dati, puwede mong sabihan, ‘Makuha ka sa tingin!’ Dati ‘yon. Sa ngayon, hindi mo na siya puwedeng kunin sa tingin. In fact hindi mo siya puwedeng pagalitan. Hindi mo siya puwedeng sigawan,” the Jesuit said. 

(You can tell children before, ‘You better get my warning with a look!’ That was before. Now, you cannot just tell them to get your warning with a look. In fact you cannot scold them. You cannot shout at them.)

Describing millennials nowadays as “different,” Alpasa said: “You need to put the right context. You give autonomy. You give space. You allow the person to be creative. You empower.”

Bilang isang tatay, hindi mo puwedeng tratuhin ang iyong mga anak katulad ng pagtrato dati. At dahil ibang iba ‘yung konteksto ngayon, iba rin dapat ‘yung estilo,” he added. (As a father, you cannot treat your children in the same way children had been treated before. Because the context now is different, the style should also be different.)

Alpasa said he thinks the Catholic Church used the “old style” in the RH issue. He cited leaders who immediately spoke “categorically” against it, instead of first sitting down, being open, and engaging in dialogue.

He said that “a more dialogical, more open process could have helped more.”

The first step in “correcting the sinner,” he explained, “is empathy.” This means “being with the people,” he said, and listening. 

Alpasa said: “Kasi iba talaga ‘yung karanasan ng nanay na labindalawa na ‘yung anak, na binubugbog ng asawa, na walang makain. Paano ang sagot natin doon? Sasabihin lang natin na, ‘Dapat kasi nagbi-birth control ka, e’? E papa’no kung ang asawa niya ay lasinggero o adik, at pinipilit siya kahit ayaw niya, kasi masyadong available ngayon ang drugs, kasi maraming social media, kasi matindi at ready access ang pornography?

(Because the experience is really different when it comes to a mother who has twelve children and is beaten by her husband and has nothing to eat. What will we say to her? Will we just tell her, “You should be using birth control”? But what if her husband is a drunkard or an addict, and she’s being forced to have sex even if she doesn’t like it, because drugs nowadays remain very available, and social media is thriving, and pornography is intense and easy to access?) 

Alpasa said another example is boxer Manny Pacquiao, a Born Again Christian, who recently described homosexual couples as worse than animals.

Alpasa said Pacquiao’s statement polarized people “for a pro-same-sex marriage” position.

“So if your objective is to make people understand that same-sex marriage should not happen, and you just invoke a Scripture passage, carelessly at that, and very categorically, without any sense of empathy, we don’t achieve the objective. It becomes very counterproductive,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

He said that in Pacquiao’s case, “a more compassionate approach could have opened a more dialogical and more open and bigger space, so that we can actually achieve the same objective that is win-win.” 

Jesus ‘had no political clout’

Villegas, for his part, told Rappler in a recent interview that the Catholic Church’s supposedly weaker political clout “should not really disturb us.”

Villegas said: “To put things in proper perspective, the Church should not really have a political clout, because to have a political clout is not the business of the Church. The business of the Church is ethics and morality.”

He said the supposedly weaker political clout “can disturb sociologists or politicians,” but the Catholic Church. 

The CBCP president said, “We are not working for political clout, and big political clout or less political clout should not disturb us because our criterion for every moral, pastoral step is WWJD, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’”

After all, he said, Jesus Christ “had no political clout” as a Jewish carpenter. “But he was always faithful to the father,” Villegas said.

The CBCP president added: “And at the end of the day, even politics wil end, e. There will be no politics in heaven. There will be no business in heaven. There will be no culture and arts in heaven. But there will always be God in heaven. So you have to fix your gaze on the Lord.”

On the Catholic Church’s weakening influence in other areas, such as Mass attendance, Villegas said the Catholic Church should “just keep on trying” in giving its best. “The rest, we entrust to God.”

“I think we will be held responsible, and God will hold us accountable, if we do not our best, and there is a dwindling of attendance, and there is a diminishing of trust, and there is a lack of effectivity in terms of the pastoral services. If it comes from not giving your best, then we are accountable,” he said. 

Villegas added that the Catholic Church does “not have any control over the response of the people.” He said, “God respects their freedom; so must we.” 

“If they care to listen, thank God. And they did not listen to us; they listened to God who uses us,” Villegas said.

“But if they don’t listen to us, I am sure, when I am dead, another voice will speak in the wilderness, and hopefully the people will listen to that voice. God will never give up on his people, teaching them what is right.” –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email