Catholic Church

Vatican hands-off on divorce bill debates in Philippines

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Vatican hands-off on divorce bill debates in Philippines

TOP DIPLOMAT. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states of the Holy See, answers questions from the media during a press conference at Diamond Hotel, Manila on July 2, 2024.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

‘The question is within the competence of the bishops’ conference of the Philippines and the individual bishops,’ says Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher

MANILA, Philippines – The Vatican has not communicated with Filipino Catholic bishops or the Marcos administration about the proposal to legalize divorce in the Philippines, said the Holy See’s top diplomat Archbishop Paul Gallagher. 

“As far as I know, there have been no communications between Rome and the local Catholic Church. Certainly, no diplomatic overtures to the Department [of Foreign Affairs] or to the government,” said Gallagher in a press conference with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo on Tuesday, July 2.

“The question is within the competence of the bishops’ conference of the Philippines and the individual bishops,” he added in response to a journalist’s question.

Gallagher, the 70-year-old secretary for relations with states of the Holy See, is on an official trip to the Philippines from Monday to Saturday, July 1 to 6. This is a first for a Vatican foreign minister in the 73 years of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and the Holy See. 

Vatican hands-off on divorce bill debates in Philippines

Gallagher addressed the question on divorce as it remains a highly divisive topic in the Philippines, the only country aside from the Vatican where divorce is illegal. A recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey showed 50% of Filipinos agree that divorce should be legalized, 31% disagree, and 17% are undecided.

The Catholic Church, where 78.8% of Filipinos belong, is seen as one of the staunchest opponents of legalizing divorce in the Philippines. According to an SWS survey, however, Filipinos from the homegrown Christian church Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) are most opposed to divorce

‘Listen to pastors’

The debate on divorce heated up after the House of Representatives approved the divorce bill on third and final reading in May. The proposal is now up for deliberation by the Senate.

“We, as the Holy See, would obviously encourage Filipino Catholics, particularly their political leaders, to listen to their pastors and to try and offer whatever is the best approach to this,” Gallagher said.

“But it is essentially a matter for the bishops, whom I will be seeing in these days in Mindanao, so it’ll be probably interesting for me to get some feedback from them,” he added, referring to the retreat of Filipino bishops in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, where he is one of the speakers on Wednesday, July 3.

The Vatican, in general, respects the autonomy of local dioceses in addressing local issues, even as it remains the central government of the Catholic Church. 

Filipino bishops and lay organizations such as Couples for Christ have been at the forefront of the fight against the divorce bill.

Gallagher’s call for peace

Instead of the divorce bill, Gallagher’s priority in the Philippines was a host of issues aligned with the Holy See’s foreign policy agenda. 

One of the matters he discussed with his Filipino counterpart, Manalo, was the West Philippine Sea, a resource-rich body of water mostly claimed also by China as part of its territory. A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, however, ruled against China’s historic rights in sea areas within its nine-dash line and upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone. 

Gallagher and Manalo tackled the West Philippine Sea in the context of other global hotspots such as Ukraine and Gaza. 

“We noted our shared perspective that amid the various international challenges and conflicts, the international community must be united in preserving a world where differences are resolved peacefully and on the basis of international law,” Manalo said on Tuesday.

Gallagher – who has served as the Vatican’s foreign minister for the past 10 years, and was assigned to the Philippines in the 1990s – said that “the position of the Holy See is quite clear” when it comes to global conflicts. 

“In such circumstances, such situations of conflict whatever they are, first of all, every effort must be made that any differences and conflicts are resolved peacefully. We would encourage parties in conflict to abide by international law and to pursue ways of resolving difficulties and problems with the best interests of all involved,” Gallagher said. –

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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