Will the Philippines finally legislate divorce?

Divorce has been a contentious issue in the Philippines for as long as I can remember. Those for it are just as fervent and unyielding in their advocacy as those against it. But it appears that a happy compromise between the two sides may be possible.

In the Philippine Congress, there are already three divorce bills filed. One of these was approved recently by the House Committee on Population and Family Relations. This will now go to the 300-member plenary and if approved, then to the Senate for deliberation and approval. If approved by the majority of the 24 senators, it will be sent to President Rodrigo Duterte’s desk for signing.

The problem, for those who really believe that the Philippines badly needs a divorce law because it is the only other country in the world — the other is the Vatican, the seat of Catholicism — that frowns on it, Duterte has made it known that he is against divorce and likely to veto the proposed bill.

But we won’t know the final score until he reads the final version of the proposed bill, which will have to pass through the eye of a needle at this point.

In short, it may be an exercise in futility for one side or the other to claim victory when the divorce bill has yet to overcome major hurdles in Congress and in the person of the chief executive, who is legally separated from his wife, by the way.

It’s understandable that the Catholic clergy and the faithful are up in arms against the divorce bill and adamant and uncompromising in their stand.

Take a recent statement of the Council of the Laity of the Philippines: “Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.”

The group emphasized that marriage and family is a “gift that should be protected” and expressed the hope that the Philippines “shall forever stand as a beacon of hope for the family and society.”

For Representative Edcel Lagman, the main author of the divorce bill in Congress, it “won’t be an easy way out of a marriage.”

The lawmaker explained that the measure has very strict requirements that would prevent couples from seeking divorce for mere convenience.

He pointed out that under the proposed law, a prosecutor would be assigned to determine within six months after the filing of the divorce petition if the grounds are valid or if there is collusion between parties.

The court would also apply a judicial dispute resolution mechanism and try to reconcile the parties within this period.

Divorce, he added, is necessary because the current options under the Family Code — legal separation, annulment of marriage and declaration of nullity — do not give complete relief to qualified parties.

“Divorce will allow grounds that are supervening or during the marriage like marital infidelity, domestic violence, chronic gambling and engagement in illegal drugs and at the same time allow re-marriage,” Lagman said.

The Philippines is the only country in the world — the other is the Vatican, the seat of Catholicism — that frowns on divorce. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

Another congressman, Rep. Benny Abante Jr., a pastor of the Metropolitan Bible Baptist Church, said he would support the proposed divorce law if the existing options under the Family Code would be removed.

“In essence I’m OK with divorce for as long as it will supersede and replace all other options like annulment and legal separation, so that it won’t be a matter of multiple choice,” he said. But as a pastor, he said, he still believes that “divorce is not morally correct because it destroys the sanctity of marriage and the family.”

Over at the Philippine Senate, it appears that the majority of senators are opposed to legalizing divorce and instead prefer a proposal to streamline the annulment process “allowed by our faith and belief,” according to Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri.

“What we don’t like about divorce is it seems to be an easy way out, it’s like ‘OK let’s file for divorce. We’re married now and then after five days or five months, we can file for divorce.”

He said shortening the process of church-decreed annulment would be a “more accepted” option for his colleagues in the Senate.

Zubiri has filed Senate Bill No. 1059 seeking to shorten and simplify the process of annulling marriages in the country by recognizing the civil effects of a church-allowed annulment for couples who have irreconcilable differences.

Under the bill, the final judgment or decree of annulment or dissolution issued by the proper church or religious sect should be recorded with 30 days in the appropriate civil registry.

He said his proposal is also in line with Pope Francis’ call to make church annulment shorter and easier to avail.

Ordinary Filipinos, meanwhile, agree to divorce but only with adequate safeguards. In a letter to the editor of a daily broadsheet, a lawyer, Severo Brillantes, said that “while it is true that some need to be saved from a hopelessly broken marriage, the proposed law should provide spouses not just an easy way out of a marriage they should, in the very first place, exert every effort to save. Otherwise, the law will only exacerbate the problem of broken marriages and weaken the solidarity of the family, contrary to what our Constitution mandates.”

What all this indicates is that divorce, Las Vegas-style, that’s done and over with in minutes, is not in the horizon at all. Hence, Catholic bishops and the laity need not be unduly worried that the proposed divorce law will “tear asunder what God has put together” because it has many stringent conditions that would still make it compliant with the mandate of the Philippine Constitution to “recognize the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the as a basic autonomous social institution.”

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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