“We haven’t had a reason to come together and vote as Catholics,” said Lorna Melegrito, the executive director of Pro-Life Philippines. “We have a reason now.”
In December, lawmakers in the Philippines passed a reproductive health law — despite vocal opposition by the Roman Catholic Church — that mandates sex education in schools, provides free or subsidized contraceptives for poor women and puts government family planning officers in remote parts of the country.
Ms. Melegrito said her organization was one of many Catholic groups around the Philippines that were organizing a grass-roots campaign in preparation for the May elections, in hopes of unseating members of Congress who supported the reproductive health measure, popularly known as the R.H. law.
“It is going to be a difficult campaign for the politicians who supported the immorality of the R.H. law,” she said.
Another organization, Catholic Vote Philippines, which was formed in December in reaction to the new law, is compiling a database of locally elected candidates, including members of the House of Representatives, and listing how their positions align with Catholic beliefs, said Dr. Ricardo B. Boncan, the group’s executive director.
On Tuesday, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a statement outlining the church’s position on various political issues, including its continued opposition to the reproductive health law, and encouraged Catholics to be politically active.
“We commend and support lay initiatives to form circles of discernment to choose worthy candidates and even to run as candidates in order to bring the values of God’s kingdom into the public discourse,” the statement said.
The church’s fight against the reproductive health bill was long successful; the measure was introduced in every new Congress for 13 years but until recently never came to a vote.
President Benigno S. Aquino III identified the bill as a priority not long after his election in 2010, to help address the country’s poverty and high birthrate. After it passed the House of Representatives on Dec. 12 on a second reading — a crucial hurdle — the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines responded with a strongly worded pastoral message titled “Contraception Is Corruption!”
To legislators who voted against the measure, the letter said, “The church will remember you as the heroes of our nation, those who have said no to corruption and who care for the true welfare of the people, especially the poor.” To those who voted for it, it warned, “God knows and sees what you are doing.” However, the measure passed and was signed into law on Dec. 21.
Harry Roque, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law, said the defeat showed that the church did not wield the political power in the Philippines that some claimed it did. He said its influence had been diminished by its inability to deliver a “Catholic vote,” and he noted that Philippine law generally followed that of the United States on the separation of church and state.
Mr. Roque argued that the church’s influence depended on who was president. Past presidents embraced and empowered the Catholic Church to seek legitimacy, he said.
“The PNoy Aquino administration does not need any legitimizing from the church because it has a huge popular mandate,” he said, using the president’s nickname. “The influence of the church depends upon who is in power and if that person needs the backing of the church.”
By all accounts, mustering a unified Catholic vote in the Philippines will be difficult.
Aurea Abrera is an example of that challenge. Ms. Abrera, 57, recently rode by bus for seven hours through the night from the northern province of Quezon to join more than 500,000 jostling, mostly barefoot Catholic devotees at a predawn procession here in the capital.
“I am a believer,” she said, looking frail and exhausted as she stood in Rizal Park in the intense afternoon sun.
But she is opposed to her church’s position on contraception.
“We needed this law,” she said “We have so many poor children scattered around our streets,” she added, gesturing to a group of street children foraging in a trash can. “The church doesn’t tell me what to think.”