IT was one of those statements that make no sense, but which some Catholic bishops are especially adept at making. Butuan Bishop Juan De Dios Pueblos said House Bill 1799, or the divorce bill, will lead to more immorality in Philippine society. The faithful should be trembling in their flip-flops. Immorality and the threat of hellfire are tales often told, though not always by an idiot.

The Philippines is now the only country in the world where there is no divorce. But assuming the Philippines finally catches up with the rest of the planet and Congress passes a divorce law, how would it lead to “more immorality”?

A woman or a man files for divorce on the grounds, say, of his or her spouse’s repeated infidelity, which is among the grounds for divorce specified in HB 1799, and is granted one. Both spouses are now free to remarry, or to remain single. If the cheating spouse maintains his or her liaison with the other woman (or man), does that add to immorality in society? If he or she chooses to marry his or her paramour, wouldn’t that in fact subtract from the sum of immorality in these parts?

On the other hand, without divorce the cheating spouse can continue cheating without benefit of either law or clergy, while the aggrieved will just have to bear his or her cross — or can choose to file for legal separation, or sue for concubinage or adultery. For the financially well-endowed, there is the lie called The Annulment, which basically declares that despite a priest’s celebrating it, the presence of 400 guests at the wedding party, and a breathless account of it in the lifestyle pages, no marriage ever took place. Really. Our fictional couple can also choose to stay together, pretending to be happy and making it appear that all’s well, thus contributing further to the sum total of the vast hypocrisy that reigns in this Catholic country.

There are other options, among them murder. But while it would meet the “’til death” condition for ending a marriage, murder would most certainly add to the aggregate of both immorality and violence in society. Murdering one’s spouse was what the title of the late 1960s movie “Divorce, Italian Style” meant, there being, at the time, no divorce in Catholic Italy — where, however, there was also something called “il divorzio piccolo,” or the little divorce: couples simply separated and one or both lived with someone else.

For the information of the bishops, among whom celibacy is the presumed way of life, the Philippines has its own version of the little divorce as well as of divorce, Italian style. If averse to doing in one’s spouse with poison, a gun, a knife or some other means, some couples who can no longer stand each other do manage, anyway, to live with someone else other than the people they’re married to.

One of the realities in this Catholic society is that some of the couples one assumes are married sometimes aren’t, and are married to someone else. It’s not limited to actors and actresses who pretend to be married to each other — a pretense to which the most avid Church- goer contributes by welcoming them even into the most exclusive circles.

But is this really all about quantities and numbers, or about something else? In a world where the only thing that’s permanent is change, people will, and do, find a way. That’s one of the truths those opposed to divorce , or, for that matter, the reproductive health bill, can’t understand. They can’t seem to understand suffering or unhappiness either. That, or they simply choose dogma, some doctrine made abstract by centuries of change, over human need.

But how urgently, indeed, does the country need a divorce law? Both the bishops and the Aquino III administration say that there are other priorities in this country of despair, to which principle they imply adherence. Mr. Aquino has even declared divorce the least of his government’s concerns.

That sounds reasonable because its premise is valid enough. The ban on divorce isn’t killing Filipinos — or at least not as many of them. Poverty and injustice are.

Both Church and State have been telling that tale often, the Church having said the same thing about the reproductive health bill, for example. But neither has declared what laws need to be passed to address the urgent issues of poverty, mass misery, and injustice that are killing Filipinos daily. One suspects that they don’t really know, that kind of knowledge being possible only when driven by a coherent policy that’s in turn based on a critique of the current state of Philippine society. The result: Mr. Aquino’s so-called priority bills (for example postponing the ARMM elections and amending the Labor Code) only superficially address the problems haunting the country.

Other than making the statement — which doesn’t require any specially high level of intelligence anyway — that poverty is the country’s main problem, neither Mr. Aquino nor the bishops have dared enlighten us on why Philippine society is as poor, as unjust and as sick as we all know it to be.

Is it because of environmental degradation, as one administration bureaucrat once declared? Is it because of corruption, as Mr. Aquino insists? Is it due to the low levels of foreign investments? Or is it because of the repeated failure of Philippine governments to abolish land tenancy, and their continuing the failed economic policies of decades that have made the country the doormat of foreign powers?

Or is it, above all these, the sheer incompetence, the lack of imagination and patriotism, and the greed, betrayal and outright stupidity of the ruling elite that prevent it from crafting the policies that would dismantle the feudal system and chart an independent course for this client state?

No answers to these questions are forthcoming from either Church or State. They are, after all, committed to keeping things the way they are. Neither will admit it. But they do oppose even the most rudimentary reforms, including those that would reduce the number of maternal deaths in the country where more mothers die during childbirth than anywhere else in the region, and those reforms that would deduct at least one molecule of misery from the sum of human unhappiness in this land of misery, while retelling again and again their often told tales of “other priorities” so they can keep Philippine society the way it’s been for centuries.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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