[OPINION] On faith and divorce: An open letter to our lawmakers

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] On faith and divorce: An open letter to our lawmakers
It’s not my intention to add to the vitriol. Instead, as a sociologist of religion, I wish to respectfully offer insights in the hope that you might reconsider what your faith says about divorce.

To our honorable legislators:

I acknowledge that many of you are reluctant to support the reinstatement of divorce in the Philippines. While I may not personally hold the same view, I do empathize with some of your perspectives.

In defense of the family, some of you have proposed that Filipinos need easier access to annulment. They have rightly pointed out, as Senate President Francis Escudero has, that the annulment process is both prohibitive and expensive. I thus agree with him that there are measures our state can take to facilitate easier access to annulment.

But some have been vocal, too, about your religious convictions.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, Senator Jinggoy Estrada was categorical: “I adhere to the teachings of our Catholic Church. Period. Yun lang yung sa akin.” In the House of Representatives, Brother Eddie Villanueva has turned (many times) to the Bible to show that “God hates divorce.” His son, Senator Joel Villanueva, quotes the Bible and then the Philippine Constitution in one go: “Who is this God that we are referring to [in the preamble]? Is this the same God who said, ‘I hate divorce’? And now we are passing a measure that would promote divorce?”

In response, the public, especially on social media, has vilified some of you for your religious convictions. Some, as you might have seen, accused you of being inconsistent – I think harsher words were used – if not insensitive to the plight of many Filipinos who wish to opt out of their marriage. 

In this open letter, it’s not my intention to add to the vitriol. Instead, as a sociologist of religion, I wish to respectfully offer insights in the hope that you might reconsider what your faith says about divorce. In what follows, you will see – I hope – that I am not antagonistic to faith-based conversations in policymaking. Instead, I am pushing for greater reflexivity.

Abandon faith?

One reason is that asking people to abandon their faith before entering the public sphere is untenable. In a society like ours, religiosity is part of one’s identity. One cannot just leave it at the door. 

Another reason is that faith helps people make decisions about what’s good and worth upholding. Like many of my colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences, I understand that religious convictions color the way people see the world. Although people can draw on many sources to think about the good life, faith is undeniably central to many Filipinos, legislators included.

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I understand that you have other reasons for your hesitation. But if your faith is central to your political choice, please allow me to share some realities I believe you must consider seriously. If, in the end, you stick to your position, I’d respect that. But I hope you arrive at that decision cognizant of these realities. 

The first is perhaps the most obvious. Not every Filipino is Catholic – or Christian, if we want to be a bit more inclusive. While the overwhelming majority are Catholic, a good number attend other Christian churches. 

How fair is it, though, to non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-believers, for that matter, to be constrained by a policy based on the conviction of a dominant religious group? The Philippines, after all, is a secular country, and our Constitution upholds freedom of religion and belief. This freedom, as many experts have pointed out, also includes the freedom to not subscribe to any religion.

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Some lawmakers might argue that the Philippines is predominantly Catholic, anyway, so the majority decides. Tough luck for the minorities. But is that the kind of society you wish to pass on to the next generation? 

The second is theological diversity. Whenever lawmakers invoke the Catholic (or Christian) card, you give the impression that there’s no other way to think about divorce. It’s evil, it’s against the Bible, and God hates it, as some of you have said.

The reality, however, is that there are competing theological perspectives on divorce. My colleague Paterno Esmaquel II has written an insightful piece about this. In it, he refers to Christina Astorga, a Filipino theologian who reflects on divorce as a valid recourse for victims of domestic violence or infidelity. 

Interestingly, even evangelicals would say the same thing. The Philippine Council for Evangelical Churches is all for expanding the grounds for annulment. But their own statement also accommodates marital dissolution. “There must be a very grave action committed by an erring spouse for the marriage bond to be validly dissolved.” 

Clearly, then, there are different ways of approaching divorce theologically. The devout Christians among our legislators might find it helpful to consider these other perspectives. Doing so would not only challenge your biases but also widen your appreciation of Christian thought. 

On matters of faith and public life, theological humility matters.

The last consideration concerns the family. I understand that some of our lawmakers are afraid that legalizing divorce might destroy the family. You are convinced that your mandate as Christian legislators is to make sure that families are preserved. If the family is the basic unit of society, then divorce would mean the destruction of our society in the long run.

Alternative perspectives

Once again, the situation calls for a more comprehensive perspective. It’s true that divorce is a crisis for many families, and children are traumatized by it. Research shows that. But just the same, research also shows that divorce, if done right, can lead to more life-giving possibilities for both parents and children. It puts a closure to dysfunctional relationships. As Adelle Chua puts it so well in her piece for Rappler, “Lahat ay may karapatang sumaya, sumubok, at sumugal muli, at mamuhay nang ligtas at payapa.”

From this vantage point, there’s no need to depict divorce as a destructive path. That’s what sociologist Kathleen Jenkins asserts in her book Sacred Divorce: Religion, Therapeutic Culture, and Ending Life Partnerships. Because of this experience, people can have a more profound encounter with faith. To our lawmakers, please consider this perspective as you decide on the fate of divorce in our country.

I’ve written this open letter in the hope that our honorable lawmakers would see that there’s always another way of approaching divorce in the light of faith. If religious convictions play a significant role in your decision-making, then it’s imperative that alternative perspectives are offered. 

This is what “mutual accountability” is about whenever religion enters the public sphere. Those who invoke their religious convictions as the basis of their political choices must be willing to demonstrate that they “treat all citizens as free and equal,” as philosopher Cristina Lafont puts it. As framers of policies that will affect every Filipino, our lawmakers carry the burden of proving this.

In the news and on social media, I know that much has been said for and against divorce. In the end, you, our honorable legislators, will have to make decisions based on a number of factors, including your political capital. But if your faith is central to that decision-making, I pray that, in the end, it’s the kind that does justice. 

Thank you. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion in the Development Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Louisville’s Center for Asian Democracy, working on his new book on religion and politics in the Philippines. Follow him on X @jayeel_cornelio.

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