A Catholic Filipino’s perspective on divorce

By James Jimenez

I’m happy that 12 Members of the House of Representatives, from Western Visayas voted in favor of House Bill (HB) No. 9349 or the Absolute Divorce Act. Although I have not voted in Iloilo for a long time, still I feel represented – as we all should – by the legislators elected into office to represent the interests of the people who live in the place I call home. This is what democracy is all about: the will of the people being echoed in the chambers of the legislature, so that the broader interests of the governed becomes the law, rather than the narrow preoccupations of certain individuals.

At the same time, I may disagree with them, but I deeply respect the seven who voted against the Divorce Act.  This too, is the essence of democracy – that we should be able to stand on our beliefs and fearlessly advocate a different point of view. It is in the clash of these two views – the one held by the many, and the one held by the fewer – that policy is sharpened to precision: achieving what it hopes to, while being prevented from over-reach.

Divorce in the Philippines

To date, there are only two countries in the world where divorce is not permitted. The Vatican City which, as the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church, understandably upholds the indissolubility of marriage, as taught by Catholic dogma; and the Philippines, the country converted to Catholicism at sword-point and catechized over 300 years of colonization.

Interestingly, many other predominantly Catholic countries have already adopted no-fault divorce systems. Italy, Spain, Argentina, even Ireland for instance, all implement no-fault divorce laws, effectively balancing the need to uphold the sanctity of marriage with the recognition of modern relational dynamics. Clearly, it is possible to respect Catholic values while addressing contemporary societal needs.

This is relevant because, far and away the most common justification for not supporting the idea of legitimizing divorce is because it runs contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic faith. The legislators, in other words, are being true to their faith. This is admirable, but in this context, I would argue – misplaced.

In a democracy – in a government of the people, by the people, for the people – the religious beliefs of those who make the laws, should not get in the way of what the governed need and clamor for. Religion is a personal matter that binds you but ought not to bind anyone else – especially not those who do not share the same beliefs. When you pass a law that flat-out delegitimizes conduct that you object to primarily on religious grounds, however, you are unjustifiably forcing your religion on other people. This runs counter to the very idea of democracy.

A Filipino Catholic

As a Filipino Catholic, I am not immune from this pull of religious belief versus my non-religious views on governance. And in the specific case of divorce, I am able to find relief in the words of the Pope himself.

Without directly accepting divorce, Pope Francis – on several occasions – has at least acknowledged that under certain conditions, the continuation of the marital relationship might be untenable. In his General Audience, June of 2015, the Pope said “there are cases in which separation is inevitable. Sometimes, it can even be morally necessary, when it’s about shielding the weaker spouse or younger children from the more serious wounds cased by intimidation and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by extraneousness and indifference.” He later echoed these words in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in 2016.

While keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to seek just reconciliation, it seems to me that the Pope’s words underscoring the need to protect the safety and well-being of the individuals involved reflects the underlying rationale for a divorce law.

The time is now

As a Catholic Filipino, my support for no-fault divorce doesn’t seek to undermine the sacrament of marriage, nor to trivialize such an important institution. Rather, it is about addressing the felt needs of many couples who suffer from within the confines of their marriage. A divorce law would, in fact, be a step towards ensuring that the laws provide a refuge for those in need, rather than an instrument of oppression. To my mind, embracing no-fault divorce actually reflects the compassionate heart of the Church, prioritizing the dignity and well-being of all its members, while at the same time fostering a legal framework that merely facilitates the fair, compassionate, and dignified dissolution of marriages, for the benefit of those that need it. The time is now to make that happen.


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