Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] Why religion matters in debating divorce

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] Why religion matters in debating divorce
‘Religion plays a crucial role in public policy – but lawmakers should advance arguments which appeal to all citizens regardless of creed’

SMH, or “shaking my head” in internet slang, was how I reacted when I read the transcript of arguments for and against the divorce bill at the House of Representatives.

In the halls of Congress, General Santos City Representative Loreto Acharon argued that the divorce bill “is anti-Christian faith because marriage is a covenant established by God for those who receive the sacrament of marriage from the Catholic Church.”

“This is a choice between the law of God and the law of the human beings. That’s why this representation chose and selected the law of God,” said Representative Sergio Dagooc of the party-list group APEC, explaining his “no” vote. 

Northern Samar 1st District Representative Paul Daza said that voting against divorce “is not merely a political decision,” but also “an affirmation of our faith, values, and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.” It also means standing for “the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”

My favorite comes from Quezon City 4th District Representative Marvin Rillo: “Mr. Speaker, fellow colleagues, I voted no against this bill. Let me simplify my explanation. There is a law far more important and powerful than the law made by man. It is the law of God. Let me quote Mark 10: 9: ‘What therefore God has joined, let not man separate.’ Very simple, yet powerful.”

For what are the gains of the world, he added, if at the end “you will lose your soul.” Rillo continued, “Let not the law of man overshadow the law made by our Creator.” 


One word can describe the way these lawmakers cited religion in Congress: tasteless.

I believe in God. I believe in the holy Catholic Church. Like Rillo, I believe in Mark 10:9 – that “what God has joined together, no human being must separate” – in its proper interpretation. But I do not believe that this is the way our elected representatives, in a secular state, should raise religious arguments in congressional proceedings.

I believe religion plays a crucial role in public policy – but lawmakers should advance arguments which, though rooted in religious beliefs, appeal to all citizens regardless of creed.

I agree with many of the points raised by a group of Ateneo theologians in support of the divorce bill, but their premise that this “is a public policy issue, not a religious one” is inadequate.

Part of the big picture

Public policy, especially in the Philippines, factors in religious beliefs – among many other facets of life such as demographics, socioeconomic contexts, and the global landscape. We cannot box out religion and dismiss it as an abstract set of concepts without realizing its impact on everyday life. Religion is real, religion is part of our lives, religion forms part of the big picture.

Surveys prove that the Philippines is a deeply religious country. 

In the 2020 Census of Population and Housing, the latest release by the Philippine government, 99.9% of Filipinos are classified as having a religious affiliation. Nearly 79% of them belong to the Catholic Church. 

In a Pew Research Center survey released in 2020, the Philippines is one of two countries with the highest percentage of people who connect belief in God to morality. According to this survey of 34 countries, 96% of Filipino respondents find belief in God necessary “in order to be moral and have good values.” 

The other country with a 96% result is Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.

In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio explained why he is “not antagonistic to faith-based conversations in policymaking.” 

“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,” wrote Cornelio, a professor at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University.

“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,” he added.

Boundaries of faith

But as with many things in life, the role of religion in public policy has its boundaries. While the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, it also declares that “no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Everyone is free to hold his or her religious beliefs, but not to impose them on others through lawmaking.

Still, the Constitution adheres to an approach called “benevolent neutrality,” which, according to the Supreme Court (SC) in the landmark Estrada vs. Escritor case, “could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests.”

In Estrada vs. Escritor, the SC in 2003 borrowed a line from a 1992 journal article by Katherine Sullivan for the University of Chicago Law Review: “Religious teachings as expressed in public debate may influence the civil public order but public moral disputes may be resolved only on grounds articulable in secular terms.”

“Otherwise, if government relies upon religious beliefs in formulating public policies and morals, the resulting policies and morals would require conformity to what some might regard as religious programs or agenda. The nonbelievers would therefore be compelled to conform to a standard of conduct buttressed by a religious belief, i.e., to a ‘compelled religion,’ anathema to religious freedom,” the SC said.

The High Court added, however, that the Constitution’s religion clauses prescribe “benevolent neutrality,” as opposed to “strict neutrality,” as it recognizes “the religious nature of the Filipinos and the elevating influence of religion in society.”

“Benevolent neutrality recognizes that government must pursue its secular goals and interests but at the same time strives to uphold religious liberty to the greatest extent possible within flexible constitutional limits. Thus, although the morality contemplated by laws is secular, benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests,” the SC said.

In Catholic terminology, the bottom line is the “common good.”

Modes of engagement

How then should religious groups – particularly the predominant Catholic Church – engage in public policy debates?

In a 2014 journal article titled “Catholicism’s Democratic Dilemma: Varieties of Public Religion in the Philippines,” David Buckley, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville, identified three ways in which the Philippine Catholic Church has participated in public life:

  • democratic preservation
  • comprehensive mobilization
  • defensive reaction

These approaches are part of what Buckley calls the “democratic dilemma” of Catholic elites, wherein  “they exert social influence, but cannot control directly the outcomes of democratic politics.” It is a “dilemma” because Catholic elites “seem unsure of which strategy best fulfills the church’s public mission.” Sometimes, the three varieties can even coexist.

Well, naming the three “varieties of public religion” is a good starting point. 

The first mode, democratic preservation, “puts the church’s public resources into strengthening institutions of democracy rather than policy lobbying.” One example is how the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting helps in safeguarding the integrity of the ballot every election.

The second, comprehensive mobilization, “is rooted in a broad Catholic social agenda and pursues a diverse policy agenda coupled with universalistic rhetoric that instructs policymakers on the protection of human dignity.” Rhetoric here “stresses universalistic values and instructs (presumably sympathetic) political elites on the protection of the common good.”

Buckley quoted sociologist Jose Casanova as saying that with comprehensive mobilization, Catholic authorities “assum[e] the vacant role of spokes[people] for humanity, for the sacred dignity of the human person, for world peace, and for a more fair division of labor and power in the world system.”

The third approach, defensive reaction, was “more recently” developed by Catholic elites. “This form of public religion responds to the democratic dilemma by prioritizing a policy agenda based on threats to the church and applies substantial public pressure on this limited set of issues,” Buckley wrote.

“In concrete policy, these challenges frequently take the form of removing certain elements of Catholic social thought from civil law. This approach is especially true of Catholic teaching related to the family, abortion policy, and regulation of divorce. The rhetoric of defensive reaction places emphasis on threats to the church from secularism and makes appeals that are more exclusively geared for Catholic ears,” the political scientist added.

Buckley said that the response of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill – now a law widening access to contraceptives – “fell into the category of defensive reaction.”

One example is the hanging of Team Patay (Team Death) and Team Buhay (Team Life) tarpaulins in the Diocese of Bacolod to campaign against senatorial candidates who supported the RH bill.

The Catholics among anti-divorce congressmen, cited at the start of this column, also resorted to defensive reactions.

Religion matters in debating divorce, but Catholic groups – and lawmakers – should not only make “appeals that are more exclusively geared for Catholic ears,” as Buckley would put it. 

We live in a secular state, and while we respect religious beliefs, we need secular arguments in secular terms. There are ways to distill religious doctrines – especially beliefs involving the good of society – into universally acceptable language. Did you know, for example, that in Laudate Deum, Pope Francis’ latest 7,133-word document on the climate crisis, the word “God” appears only 11 times, and “Catholic” only twice?

To borrow a phrase from the classic Lemon vs. Kurtzman case in the US, each law should have a “legitimate secular purpose.”

Lawmakers cannot vote “no” simply based on a Bible verse. –

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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