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Two tests for the Church

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With the contentious Reproductive Health Bill still roasting on the grill, liberal lawmakers are tossing in the divorce bill in a move that is certain to further inflame the passions of conservative Catholics and clerics in the country.

Encouraged by the recent overwhelming approval in a referendum of the proposed divorce law in Malta, which remains the only Catholic country in the world, along with the Philippines, still without a divorce law, Gabriela party list Representatives Luz Ilagan and Emmi de Jesus revived House Bill 1799, entitled “An Act Introducing Divorce in the Philippines”.

Malta, a small island nation below the Italian peninsula, is 95% Catholic while the Philippines is 81% Catholic. Formal passage of Malta’s divorce law would leave the Philippines the last holdout in the divorce issue. Whether this phenomenon is good or bad is yet to be known.

HB 1799, which Ilagan and De Jesus first filed in July 2010, seeks to give couples in irreparable marriages a legal remedy in addition to laws on legal separation and annulment. A similar bill was filed by Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez in March. Sen. Pia Cayetano is leading the move to legalize divorce in the Senate.

Under Ilagan’s bill, divorce may be filed if the petitioner has been separated de facto from his or her spouse for at least five years and reconciliation is highly improbable; if the petitioner has been legally separated from his or her spouse for at least two years and reconciliation is highly improbable; when any of the grounds for legal separation has caused the irreparable breakdown of the marriage; when one or both spouses are psychologically incapacitated to comply with the essential marital obligations; when the spouses suffer from irreconcilable differences that have cause the irreparable breakdown of the marriage.

The divorce bill was first introduced in the 11th Congress, about the same time the RH bill was filed, making them the most contentious, yet unresolved measures in the last 12 years.

“Let us not keep our country in the Dark Ages,” Ilagan said in pushing for the approval of the bill.

Indeed, the country has been kept in the dark primarily because of the stubborn stand of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines against it. The Church has remained blind to the realities of modern Philippine society, just as it has remained incognizant of the adverse effects of uncontrolled population growth to the Philippines and its people.

In August last year, shortly after Ilagan and De Jesus filed HB 1799, I wrote in an article entitled “Who’s Afraid of the Divorce Law?”:

“Extreme poverty, lack of education, financial problems, prolonged separation in the case of couples where one or both are working abroad, and other social ills that were not prevalent until about a few decades ago, are putting many marriages in the Philippines under tremendous pressure.

“The phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos departing for work abroad annually, leaving behind their spouses and children, has resulted in broken families and wayward children. It is not uncommon for the spouse left behind to commit adultery, and their children to grow amidst this immoral environment and without the guidance of both parents. The same goes for the spouse abroad, who meets another man or woman, married or unmarried, who shares his or her loneliness and cohabit, sometimes bearing illegitimate children.

“The adultery, as we all know, is not limited to spouses whose partner is abroad. Even those who earn enough for both spouses to remain in the country are not immune from marital transgressions. Many men maintain mistresses mainly because of the availability of young women willing to cohabit without the benefit of marriage just to escape poverty.

“A big majority of our national leaders, including the lawmakers on whose hands fall the authority to pass such law, are men who want to enjoy the best of both worlds – keeping their family intact while enjoying the benefits of infidelity.

“It is not a coincidence that those pushing for the divorce bill in Congress are women. It is also not a coincidence that all over the world, a big percentage of those filing for divorce are women. It is not difficult to understand that in most failed marriages, it is the women who suffer more – victims of domestic abuse and violence, and neglected or abandoned by philandering or alcoholic husbands. Many of these women suffer in silence in the Philippines.

“In millions of households, both men and women who are trapped in marital commitment constantly quarrel, often in front of their helpless children who grow up in a confused and violent environment. Often, men turn to other women and bear illegitimate children, and then abandon their legal wives and children because of lack or laxity of laws that should have held them accountable.

“Many couples have irreparable differences that lead to almost daily verbal and physical abuse. And yet, they remain living together for lack of a law that would allow them to legally and properly part ways, and seek the peace and happiness that they couldn’t find in their present partner.

“Many couples have simply lost the love that brought them before the altar or before a marriage minister, and have found instead contempt and sadness. And yet, they are confined to their hopeless situation because of the lack of a divorce law.

“Opponents of divorce say there are legal remedies for these people stuck in failed marriages.

“There is legal separation, a decree rendered by a court allowing spouses to live separately but they remain married to each other. If the man lives or cohabits with another woman, he may be charged with concubinage and if the woman cohabits with another man, she can be charged with adultery. Legal separation may be granted when there is marital infidelity, attempt on the life of the other spouse, homosexuality or lesbianism, repeated physical violence and abandonment without justifiable cause for more than one year.

“The main difference between legal separation and the two other remedies is that the legally separated spouses cannot re-marry, while in the case of annulment and declaration to nullify marriage, they can re-marry. The proposed divorce law also allows them to re-marry, with added protection, such as child support, alimony and child custody.

“The unhappy spouse can file for annulment for various reasons, such as psychological incapacity, one of the parties was 18 years of age but below 21 and the consent of the parents were not obtained; the consent of one of the parties was obtained by fraud, force, or mistake in the identity of the other party, insanity, or impotence.

“The unhappy spouse can also seek a declaration of nullity of marriage, which decrees that the marriage was void from the beginning (void ab initio). The grounds for such nullification are minority age (below 18), lack of authority of solemnizing officer, lack of marriage license, bigamous or polygamous marriage, incestuous marriage, mistake in identity, and void by reason of public policy.

“The problem with annulment of voidable marriage and declaration of nullity of marriage is that most of the grounds are difficult to prove and require a lot of money to prove before the court. Only the rich can and have actually availed of its benefits, that’s why it’s not unusual to read about movie and TV celebrities and businessmen filing for annulment of marriage, and why only 8,000 annulments have been issued so far. And worse, it is the aggrieved party who must shoulder the exorbitant costs.

“Meanwhile, the average Maria has to continue to suffer psychologically and physically from her marriage to an abusive and irresponsible husband. The children likewise have to continue living in an environment where contempt and abuse have replaced love and respect. The end result: A society of confused, wayward and lawless individuals.

“While the Roman Catholic Church claims unfounded fears that the legalization of divorce would result in the increase in the number of broken homes and marriages, it should perhaps contemplate on the distinct possibility that the millions of broken homes and marriages could reflect on its inability to nurture the moral values of its flock.

“If the members of the clergy had been more attentive to the moral and spiritual needs of their flock, perhaps there would be no need for divorces.”
The Roman Catholic Church is expected to fight tooth and nails to block the passage of the RH and divorce bills. If the bills were passed, it would signal the start of the decline of the five centuries-old influence of the Church in the country.

Expect fire and venom, not just the ringing of the bells, emanating from the churches and the pulpits in the coming weeks.

By Val G. Abelgas




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