divorce in the Philippines

[OPINION] On divorce and Filipino values

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] On divorce and Filipino values
I get that it’s a moral concern. But portraying divorce only as a moral evil sidetracks many other issues.

“Filipino values. Family values. But what do we really value? Life, safety, and sanity through divorce? Or that superficial image of a supposedly ideal marriage?”

Em Abuton is a mother of four girls who describes herself as a “staunchly pro-divorce advocate.” In a piece for Rappler, she minces no words for the “hypocrisy” of religious leaders. She takes them to task for advising couples to stay together despite domestic violence when, in fact, the clergy themselves are unmarried. She also believes the latter is unjust for denying the abused party – often the woman – “the right to be totally free from the abuser.” 

Like many other Filipinos, she’s upset that “Filipino” and “family” values have become a convenient excuse to neglect the welfare of abused women. And we have reason to believe she’s not alone.

Since 2005, public support for divorce legislation has been growing consistently. In fact, according to the latest data from SWS, 53% of Filipinos (as opposed to 32%) agree that “married couples who have already separated and cannot reconcile anymore should be allowed to divorce so they can get legally married again.” (I wrote about this trend in another piece: Is the Philippines ready for divorce?)

Spanish period

To this day, there’s no divorce law in the country except for Muslim Filipinos, who are covered by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws. For context, relative divorce or legal separation was allowed for Filipinos during the Spanish period. It was not until during the American occupation that the first civil divorce law, based on adultery or concubinage, was made possible. 

Marital dissolution was repealed, however, when the Philippines gained its independence, and the Civil Code had to be revised in 1950. In that revised version, legal separation replaced absolute divorce. As historians of that period observed, the move was prompted by strong resistance from the Catholic Church. In 1987, legal separation was retained in the Family Code under Executive Order 209 and remains in force. 

In the past three decades, renewed efforts have been made to legalize divorce in the country. A series of proposals were initiated in 1999 and then in 2001. Many others followed suit over the years, but none has been successful. In 2023, an unprecedented turn occurred when a Senate committee approved a consolidated measure. 

This, however, may have raised hopes too soon. Just last month, the Philippine senators’ counterparts in the House of Representatives sent their own divorce bill back to the original committee. Its primary author, Representative Edcel Lagman, “cried foul.” In his view, the move was only meant to “derail the proceedings.”

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Marriage, a Filipino value?

What is also striking about Abuton’s piece is that it calls into question the repetitive claim that marriage is a Filipino value. But is it? 

The claim is not new. In the 1920s, when absolute divorce became the law of the land, Jose Lopez-Vito, Jr., a prominent lawyer, criticized the Supreme Court. In a piece published by the Philippine Law Journal, he disagreed with its conclusion that marital dissolution effectively repealed legal separation. In his view, the latter should have been retained because marriage was not only a sacred vow. “The sanctity of the family,” argued Lopez-Vito, Jr. “is one of the greatest prides of our race.” 

In 1960, Jorge Coquia, another prominent lawyer, castigated his women colleagues who participated in the convention of the Federacion Internacional de Abagadas (FIDA) in Manila. The women rallied behind FIDA’s resolution in favor of a standard divorce law worldwide. Published in another scholarly journal, here’s what he said: “The matter of absolute divorce has no place among the accepted mores, customs and family traditions of the Philippines…[and] is not consonance with the moral and religious convictions of Filipinos.”

Were these lawyers justified? 

From the perspective of the majority, one can argue that they were. In a way, their legal gravitas reinforced the Catholic Church’s position. As I mentioned above, the Catholic Church in the mid-20th century appealed to the framers of the Civil Code in the name of the public. Writing around that time, Deogracias Reyes made the following observation: “The code reaffirms in many of its provisions the Filipino tradition of family solidarity, further strengthened by the Catholic faith of the people.”

No more majority

Can the same argument be made in 2024? 

According to the survey data I mentioned above, the majority of Filipinos are now in favor of a divorce law. This means the religious sector can no longer rely on the majority to rally behind it.

I think this explains why the religious resistance to marital dissolution now portrays it as a moral evil that threatens Filipino values. This is a different take altogether.

For my ongoing book project, I’m documenting how the religious rhetoric now portrays divorce as a moral evil because it destroys the Filipino family. And the family is what defines Filipinoness. This take is no longer majoritarian. Instead, what we have here is an essentialist argument. One priest has this to say: “Divorce is…anti-family, anti-marriage, and anti-children.”

It’s worth reiterating that in this worldview, the family is heteronormative. This explains why the religious community has fought tooth and nail over the SOGIE Equality Bill. From this vantage point, divorce and homosexuality are lumped together as facets of a “culture of death” that they believe threatens Philippine society.

Moral fortitude

Since divorce is a moral evil, the logical recourse is moral fortitude.

The religious discourse expresses this in different ways. Couples must fight for their marriage, rediscover their faith in God, be humble enough to admit their mistakes, forgive each other, and stick to one another for the sake of their children. 

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines makes a strong statement: “If you cannot keep the promise, do not make it [at] all. Do not claim its privileges while refusing to own up to its demands.”

I get that it’s a moral concern. But portraying divorce only as a moral evil sidetracks many other issues. 

Divorce, for example, is also a matter of mental health, as some scholars have rightly pointed out. One must also mention that legal separation does not allow parties to get married again. This means that their legal spouses may retaliate by charging them with adultery or concubinage if they enter into another relationship. This warning comes from no less than the Philippine Commission on Women. It also reminds the public that children born out of these new relationships are not considered legitimate. 

Divorce, I have no doubt, is a moral concern. Many Filipinos, after all, are still of the view that marriage is worth fighting for. 

But if this morality is tied to Filipino values (or Filipinoness), what does it ultimately make of those who suffer among us? Are they not Filipinos too?

I suppose one more question must be asked as our society debates divorce. Is it not Filipino too to “build a just and humane society”? 

It must be. It’s right there in the very first sentence of the Philippine Constitution. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a visiting scholar at the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville. On sabbatical from the Ateneo de Manila University, where he is Professor of Development Studies, he is working on his book on religion and politics in the Philippines. Follow him on X @jayeel_cornelio


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  1. ET

    Thanks to Prof. Jayeel Cornelio for his educational and enlightening ideas on Divorce. Most importantly, it relates to Filipino values and building a just and humane society. I eagerly wait for his following articles expounding on this relationship. I also wish he could work on the origin of the love of family as a value and how such value becomes one of the Filipino values. Again, thank you, Prof. Cornelio.

    1. ET

      Clarification: divorce and how it relates to building a just and humane society. Advance thanks, Prof. Cornelio.

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