Catholic Church

‘Please allow divorce in the Philippines,’ Atenean tells Pope Francis

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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‘Please allow divorce in the Philippines,’ Atenean tells Pope Francis

DIALOGUE. Jack Lorenz Acebedo Rivera (lower left) and Alliah Custodio (lower right) are Ateneo de Manila University students who joined the online dialogue with Pope Francis on June 20, 2024.

Screenshot from Loyola University Chicago

The student from the Jesuit university adds that Pope Francis should ‘stop using offensive language’ against the LGBTQIA+ community

MANILA, Philippines – A Filipino college student from a Catholic university urged Pope Francis to “allow” divorce in the Philippines, the only country aside from the Vatican that prohibits divorce.

“Please allow divorce in the Philippines and stop using offensive language against the LGBTQIA+ community. This leads to immense pain,” said Jack Lorenz Acebedo Rivera, a senior psychology student from Ateneo de Manila University, in a live online dialogue with the Pope at around 9 pm (Manila time) on Thursday, June 20.

An Ateneo scholar from Tondo, Manila, Rivera made this appeal after the House of Representatives approved the divorce bill on third and final reading in May, shifting the battleground to the Senate. 

Rivera’s reference to “offensive language” came after the Pope was reported to have used the Italian word frociaggine, which means “faggotry,” in a closed-door meeting with Italian bishops in late May. The Pope issued a public apology saying he “never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms,” but reportedly used the term again in a meeting with Roman priests. 

In the event called “Building Bridges Across Asia-Pacific,” students shared with Francis the fruit of their smaller group discussions ahead of Thursday’s online dialogue organized by Loyola University Chicago. The 87-year-old Pope, who held pen and paper, took notes of each student’s reflection and responded to their major points while calling them by name.

‘Please allow divorce in the Philippines,’ Atenean tells Pope Francis

Rivera, who is in his early 20s, said he is treated as an outcast “and bullied due to my bisexuality, my gayness, my identity, and my being a son of a single parent.” His mother “cannot divorce” his father – an example he cited as he called on the Pope to “allow” divorce.

The Pope cannot “allow” divorce in the Philippines – it is not a theocracy – but Rivera’s words reflect the sentiment that the Catholic Church and a politically influential local Christian group are the main obstacles to legalizing divorce.

The Philippines, where nearly 79% of people are Catholic, was ruled by Spanish friars for 300 years when it was a Spanish colony. The Catholic Church’s influence waned through the centuries, but it has kept its clout in a country where 96% of people, according to Pew Research, think belief in God “is necessary in order to be moral and have good values.“

A recent Social Weather Stations survey showed that 50% of Filipino adults agree with legalizing divorce while 31% disagreed and 17% were undecided.

Take a guess: Filipinos from which religion are most opposed to divorce?

Take a guess: Filipinos from which religion are most opposed to divorce?

Rivera, who said he “developed bipolar disorder,” also said Filipino culture “suppresses emotional expression,” leading to risk behaviors. He cited the Philippines having “one of the highest rates of HIV transmissions and suicidal ideations in the world.”

To drive home his point about inclusion, Rivera – whose nickname is JLove – wore a sash with rainbow colors symbolizing the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, especially in the month of June, which is known as Pride Month.

In a pre-event discussion, just a minute before the Pope joined the videoconferencing platform, Rivera asked about the idea of “building bridges and connecting with people” with different perspectives on social issues.

Citing himself as an example, Rivera said: “I am pro-choice and I understand abortion, and I wear this rainbow sash, and before this call, I was instructed not to wear this rainbow sash because they said that it is political. But I think this conversation can be political, just like everything is political.” 

He had to be interrupted, however, because the Pope had already entered the virtual room.

Even at a younger age, Rivera was already known for his sharp opinions on social issues. Rivera, as a 17-year-old student, had written about his mother’s sacrifices as a worker in a 2019 piece for Rappler. At least two Inquirer pieces in 2019 were also attributed to him. He won first prize at the youth essay-writing contest of the Philippines’ prestigious Palanca Awards in 2018.

‘Please allow divorce in the Philippines,’ Atenean tells Pope Francis
‘Deep sense of frustration’

Another Ateneo student, political science student Alliah Custodio, addressed Francis during the online dialogue on Thursday evening. Custodio said that while she was grateful for the Pope’s time, she was also coming “with a deep sense of frustration.” 

“Young people today find that there is chaos in every direction we point our heads to. There is poverty. There is climate change. There are wars. And innocent people are dying. All are rooted in deep-seated and intersecting inequalities, ultimately fueled by hatred,” Custodio said. 

“Undeniably, the Church and some of its communities have a history of proliferating this hatred, especially to those who do not share the same beliefs, to those who are different. And this hate is justified by the same texts we use to preach love, kindness, and acceptance,” the student said.

Custodio then challenged the Catholic Church, schools, and communities to “reflect the world as it is now, by moving beyond differences, recognizing our shared humanity, and providing a loving space for all.” She said the Church should “be braver in acting and in speaking out against institutions, governments, and personalities that sustain and thrive on hatred.”

“We want to experience God’s unconditional love, but sometimes it is the Church that interrupts this experience,” Custodio said.

“Holy Father, give us something to hope for, and we’ll figure out the rest,” she added.

Custodio, according to a June 5 memo of her university, is the program awardee or the best-performing graduate of the Ateneo political science department this year.

Rivera and Custodio’s university, Ateneo, is a 165-year-old Jesuit school that is one of the leading Catholic institutions in the Philippines. Ateneo is known for its progressive views on social issues, with a group of Ateneo theologians recently urging the Catholic Church not to “stand in the way of those who truly need” divorce.

The organizer of Thursday’s dialogue with the first Jesuit pope – Loyola University Chicago – is also a Jesuit university.

Pope Francis: ‘No discrimination’

In his response to the Ateneo students, the Pope addressed deeply rooted discrimination among people. He cited Rivera’s example of “your mother that cannot divorce your father, or discrimination due to sexual identity or orientation, or gender discrimination.” He said that closeness to each other can prevent discrimination from happening.

Referring to the notion that women are second-class citizens, the Pope said, “Women are the best people, they are the smartest people…. The greatness of women must not be forgotten. Women are better than men in terms of their insight, in terms of their ability to create communities.”

The Pope also said: “What Alliah said really impressed me. The main question is love, the ability to love. And the ability to love helps us grow. And this is actually helping us overcoming our fears.”

The Pope did not address his reported homophobic slur in his response to Rivera or Custodio.

Toward the end of his response to the Filipino students, Francis referred to Rivera’s statement about HIV. “JLove mentioned the HIV rate in the Philippines. We have to fight to make sure that healthcare is helping us in addressing these problems, that there is no exclusion of sick people, that we should treat them and help them,” the pontiff said.

“To sum up,” said Francis, “no discrimination, no discrimination whatsoever, and yes to proximity, closeness. And this is what leads us to love.”

The Pope added: “And a piece of advice, if I may: Be able to discriminate between true love and false love, and always pick true love.” – Rappler.com

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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 pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.