Till divorce do us part

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Is there anything about divorce – a bill for legalizing which will soon be taken up in the Senate – that hasn’t already been said, or that most people don’t know? This was on my mind last week as I walked to school, wondering what my class of 20-year-old seniors thought about the issue. As young people likely to get married within the next five to ten years, they’re the ones who stand to be most affected by the outcome of the current drive to get the bill passed.

So I brought it up – we’re taking up argumentative or opinion writing, and how to handle contentious topics, and divorce was right up that alley. I didn’t tell them which side I stood on, although, knowing me to be a flaming liberal, they could have guessed that. I let them speak. Given that this was the University of the Philippines, and even factoring in the possibility that students tend to dovetail along with what they think their teachers believe, it was no big surprise that everyone who spoke up in that room did so in favor of legalizing divorce; if there was anyone in opposition, which I rather doubt, he or she chose to remain silent.

Clearly, a majority favored the move, for the very reasons cited by the bill’s supporters. One student had a very personal take on the matter: “As the child of parents whose marriage was annulled,” she said, “I can remember all the things they had to do to get that annulment. The poor can’t afford it.” And economics aside, what did divorce offer that annulment didn’t? “The freedom to remarry!” everyone chimed in, absolutely on-point.

But – I said, just to probe a bit further – what about the argument that divorce will contribute to the break-up of marriages? “Those marriages are already broken,” said a student.

But the Vatican opposes divorce, doesn’t it? (It’s the only other country in the world, aside from the Philippines, which doesn’t recognize divorce.) “Priests don’t get married. What do they know about marriage?”

At this point, I found it useful to introduce a fact that was news to everyone in the room. “Did you know that we used to have divorce in the Philippines?” No! Really? “Yes, a divorce law was enacted under the Americans in 1917. It was even expanded under the Japanese Occupation, and continued after the war until the Civil Code of 1950 abolished absolute divorce and replaced it with legal separation. Go on, look it up. I don’t know how many Filipinos actually availed themselves of divorce when it was legal – it would be interesting to see the statistics – but it’s not like we never had the option. It was there, but Church-supported politicians took it back.” Did the Filipino family collapse back then because of the availability of divorce? Show me the proof.

If this exchange sends chills up the spine of ultraconservatives who still think of UP as a haven of rebels, atheists and devil worshippers, I’m happy to tell them that religion is alive and well in UP – the services in both Catholic and Protestant chapels are usually full. But so are reason and critical thinking, which to me remain the best antidotes to doctrinaire dogmatism, whether from the left or from the right.

The Catholic Church’s steadfast resistance to legalizing divorce and my students’ apparent willingness to push back against that bulwark reminded me of a critical period back in the 1950s when UP was torn by a struggle between religious forces allied with the popular Jesuit Fr. John Delaney such as the UP Student Catholic Action and those who, like Philosophy Prof. Ricardo Pascual, believed in maintaining UP’s non-sectarian character. In the end, secularism prevailed, but at the price of Pascual and other liberal-minded professors being denounced as “communists” before the House committee on anti-Filipino activities.

I’d like to think that a lot has changed since then, although sometimes things seem pretty much the same, given how the red-tagging continues despite the sharply diminished power and influence of the CPP-NPA. One thing that has changed, at least in the public’s perception, is the presumption of moral superiority once claimed by a Church now embroiled in sexual and financial scandal. Its invocations of “divine law” or “natural law” in matters relating to homosexuality, contraception and divorce sound almost medieval in a world that has largely moved in the opposite direction – something the conservative faithful will see as all the more reason to hold on inflexibly to their core convictions.

We can’t argue with those convictions, to which everyone has a right, but conversely, our people as secular citizens shouldn’t be subject to any religion’s doctrines when it comes to personal decisions that are no prelate’s or imam’s business. (And just for the record, I have no plans of divorcing my adorable wife, with whom I just celebrated 50 years of a typically mercurial but happily enduring marriage.)

I’ve written previously about my disaffection with organized religion, so that may provide some context; I do believe in God and in the value of faith and prayer in our lives, and in the right of others to practice their religion – for as long as they don’t insist that theirs is the only right way forward, and impose their way of life on me. If you want to stay married in mutual and lifelong misery because you believe it’s the right thing to do, fine; but don’t expect others to do the same, because their lives aren’t yours to mess up. Happiness is hard enough to find in this dystopic world we live in; let’s not make it harder for others looking for another chance at love and peace.

I doubt that they’ll change the wedding vows – “For better or for worse, till death do us part” is always worth two people’s best shot, until worse comes to worst. But divorce should be an option better left to the individual’s God-given intelligence, conscience and emotional honesty to sort out than to institutions more concerned with abstractions than reality. It’s ultimately a reminder of how human we are – people make mistakes, which can’t be corrected by prolonging them; we learn, we do better and we live on. I think that’s what a just and kind Almighty would wish for his creations.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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