Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] The problem with ‘I am Catholic, I say no to divorce’

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] The problem with ‘I am Catholic, I say no to divorce’
‘We need to listen to different points of view – even within the same religion – and not stick to slogans that serve only to bloat the ego, not engage in fruitful dialogue’

Immediately after the House of Representatives approved the divorce bill on third and final reading, a powerful graphic went viral across Catholic social media feeds in the Philippines.

“I am a Catholic and I say no to divorce,” reads the art card, with a Vatican flag at the top and a Philippine flag at the bottom. In smaller letters, below the slogan, is a hashtag: #StandWithTheCatholicChurch.

I say it is powerful because it is a bold proclamation: it screams “either with us or against us.” It sets clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. And it trumpets all the majesty and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, a 2,000-year-old religion that Spanish colonizers imposed on our ancestors, who eventually embraced the faith and made it their own.

The slogan is more about emphasizing power – that is, a morally superior identity, “I am a Catholic!” – than it is about convincing nonbelievers or educating people about Catholic teachings.

Had I not been a practicing Catholic, part of me would have loved to retort, “Eh ‘di kayo na ang Catholic!” (Then you be the Catholics!)

The problem with a slogan like this is that it attaches religious identity to a singular political act – in particular, the passage of the House Bill No. 9349 – as if to say that if one supports this absolute divorce bill in Philippine Congress, one ceases to be a Catholic. Or that if one opposes this, one’s identity as a Catholic is complete. 

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VIRAL GRAPHIC. Do you agree with its premise?

First, we need to understand that not all Church teachings are definitive markers of Catholic identity. There are distinctions between dogma, doctrine, and discipline – with dogma being the most definitive, unchangeable form of Catholic teaching. Examples of dogmas are Catholic beliefs in the Blessed Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and the Assumption of Mary.

Like dogmas, doctrines point to eternal truths. Doctrines, however, can change over time as we humans and our understanding of the world evolve. One example is how Pope Francis declared in 2018 that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” contrary to the previous teaching that indicates openness “if this is the only possible way” of defending human lives against an aggressor.

Seasoned Filipina theologian Christina Astorga, professor and theology department chair of the University of Portland, addressed this topic in a public Facebook post on May 28.

Astorga, a theologian for the past 45 years, is an expert in moral theology. She was full professor and chair at Ateneo de Manila University’s theology department from 1994 to 2003, and later on served as fellow or visiting professor in schools like the Jesuit Institute at Boston College, the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and Fordham University.

In her Facebook post, Astorga explained that no Catholic moral teaching can be considered infallible “because morality can be understood in different contexts and in the changing of times.” 

An “infallible teaching” is one that “is not open to any error, or any change, because it is the very core Christian teaching,” which means that “one cannot be Christian” if one does not believe it.

She cited two examples of Catholic moral teachings that eventually evolved. “For instance, there was a time when it was morally wrong to impose interest on money borrowed. It was considered usury. But with the emergence of the banking system, interest on money borrowed became part of the system,” she said.

“Slavery,” the theologian added, “was accepted at the time of the early Church,” and slave owners “were only exhorted to treat their slaves with respect and kindness.” Only later was the institution of slavery “condemned as abominable” and “abolished as immoral and legal.”

“Thus to say that one cannot be Christian or be a Catholic because one approves of divorce is wrong. And if one takes recourse in divorce in a marriage where one has been a victim of domestic violence and/or of chronic infidelity and adultery, one does not violate an infallible truth like ‘Jesus is truly God and truly human.’ One is still a Christian and a Catholic,” Astorga said.

No single person or group holds the copyright to Catholic identity.

We need to understand that the question of identity is complicated, and even in a religion as ancient and as centralized as the Roman Catholic Church, there can be “identities” within a single identity. We need to accept that the world is composed of different beliefs – even among those who share a common faith. We cannot live in the fantasy world of a monolithic religion.

Fearing the loss of identity

Conflicts rooted in religious identity are not unique to the Catholic Church.

In his book Understanding Religion (University of California Press, 2021), religion scholar Paul Hedges wrote that “the likelihood of some form of conflict grows when we see the out-group as being potentially hostile or some form of threat to us.” Such a threat may not only be physical, he said, but also existential “to our culture, society, or way of life.”

“We may also feel threatened when we fear a loss of our own identity (often some form of dilution of our boundaries) by another group. This is mainly the case where one single identity (e.g., a religious identity) has become predominant or highlighted,” wrote Hedges, who was also my interreligious dialogue professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. 

“When our imagined identity becomes singular and static, we react negatively to anything which might challenge this sense of who we are and our central core identity,” he added.

The key to countering these fears is a better sense of diversity. 

“Indeed, studies show that where plural identities exist, and we have a clear sense of these multiple identities, there is generally less chance of hostility and conflict,” Hedges said.

To appreciate diversity, a good starting point is always the statistics.

In the 2020 Census of Population and Housing, 78.8% of Filipinos said they belong to the Catholic Church. This is followed by 6.4% of Filipinos who subscribe to Islam, 2.6% who are members of the homegrown Christian group Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), and many others who belong to other Christian churches.

During debates in the House over the divorce bill, a number of lawmakers cited their Catholic faith in voting against the divorce bill. “The Philippines is largely a Catholic country and I believe that our laws are there to serve a majority of the Filipino people,” said actor-turned-congressman Richard Gomez. 

Hmm, okay, so what about the minority? Should we treat them as ghosts, as figments of our imagination?

And who ever told our good lawmakers that because the Catechism of the Catholic Church prohibits divorce, the “majority of the Filipino people” (who belong to the Catholic Church) therefore oppose divorce?

The latest Social Weather Stations survey on the issue, released on May 31, showed that 50% of Catholics favor divorce, 17% are undecided, and 31% disagree.

The nation’s 85.65 million Catholics do not share a unified “Catholic position” on the divorce.

The original sin

Before we proceed, we need to be clear: Catholic bishops come from a place of noble intentions. It is unfair – and uninformed – to demonize them as “pro-abuse of women” simply because they oppose the divorce bill.  

Catholic bishops view the issue from the perspective that marriage is a covenant – not a mere contract – and that it mirrors the love of Christ for his Bride, the Church. They also fear that the divorce bill will change Filipino culture to the detriment of children. For women suffering abuse, they offer alternatives such as annulment, on top of pastoral care for abused women and children.

“We can empathize with the pain and suffering of families affected by irreparable marriages. However, we firmly believe that divorce only exacerbates the instability of the affected families and the negative effects on children. It opens the door to a mindset where marriage can be easily dissolved for various reasons, which contradicts the permanence and sacredness of the mutual bond,” wrote Legazpi Bishop Joel Baylon in a May 26 pastoral letter.

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said that in the first place, “marriage should be entered into only by those mature enough for a lifetime of consecration and fidelity in wedded life.”

“To criticize this as an unreasonable demand is to cast a slur on the hundreds, thousands even, of couples in the Philippines who have remained true to the promises of their wedding day. They are the tangible proof that such fidelity is possible. They are the empirical evidence that personality differences notwithstanding, difficulties are not impossible to overcome as long as couples do not give up on love,” Villegas said.

It is the bishops’ right to air these views in a democratic nation.

Having said this, I believe that Catholics should also open themselves to other views on the matter – proposed by theologians within the Catholic Church itself. Many of these theologians, as expected, have been censured by the Vatican – but it is always enriching to learn from those who navigate the thin line between obedience and resistance while remaining children of God.

Sister Margaret Farley, professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity School, discussed divorce in her controversial book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, which was condemned by the Vatican under Benedict XVI but remains a reliable resource for alternative points of view.

“The point of a permanent commitment, of course, is to bind those who make it in spite of any changes that may come. But can it always hold? Can it hold absolutely, in the face of radical and unexpected change? My answer: sometimes it cannot,” Farley said.

She explained: “A commitment no longer binds when (1) it becomes impossible to keep; (2) it no longer fulfills any of the purposes it was meant to serve; (3) another obligation comes into conflict with the first obligation, and the second is judged to override the first. Only one of these conditions needs to be in place – although often more than one characterizes the situation – in order to justify a release from the commitment-obligation.”

Father Charles Curran, a seasoned theologian who was educated in Rome and later censured by the Vatican, also wrote about divorce in his book Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian

Curran recounted how, in 1973, he also “addressed the issue of divorce and argued for a change in the Catholic Church’s teaching to allow the legitimacy of divorce and remarriage in some circumstances.” He said that the early Church “made some exceptions in what might have been Jesus’ absolute pronouncement on divorce,” and that “divorce was allowed in certain circumstances” during Christianity’s first 1,000 years.

The likes of Sister Farley and Father Curran are Catholic, too – and they are open to allowing divorce.

We need to listen to different points of view – even within the same religion – and not stick to slogans that serve only to bloat the ego, not engage in fruitful dialogue.

The biggest problem with a slogan like “I am a Catholic and I say no to divorce” goes back to the first married couple, Adam and Eve.

The original sin of Adam and Eve, remember, was not divorce.

It was pride. –

1 comment

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  1. RB

    Church and state should always be separate. A Catholic’s belief that there should be no divorce conflicts with non-Catholics and should never be a law. The USA is a prime example where inserting religion into politics creates significant dissent. It is up to God for the final assessment when we go and stand before Him.

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email