Ban on divorce leaves the loveless in an awkward legal limbo
Just because the Philippines is the last country on Earth to refuse to allow divorce for most of its citizens, that doesn’t mean Filipinos don’t fall out of love with one another. So what to do? One recourse for those who stray is to separate, move on to the next relationship — and live in sin.
The alternative, in a country where the Catholic Church still wields enormous influence, is to follow a torturously convoluted — and for many, prohibitively expensive — path to an annulment.
Most of those who are unhappy or unfaithful don’t even try.
The absence of modern divorce laws looms large in the Philippines, a poor but rapidly transitioning society with a large migrant workforce and many transnational families.
The church will stick to its guns on this issue, even as a synod that convened at the Vatican this week plans to take up the question of divorce, among other subjects.
As it stands, though, tens of thousands in the Philippines are stuck in difficult or dysfunctional marriages, torn between the teachings of their faith and a humiliating legal limbo.
An annulment, for those who pursue one, means the marriage never happened.
It pits spouse against spouse — as divorce often does — but it also pits both against a church canon lawyer or a state prosecutor whose job it is to defend the sanctity of marriage. Infidelity, desertion, physical or psychological abuse, irreconcilable differences or just the reality that two people simply can’t stand the sight of each other any more cannot be considered in a civil annulment proceeding.
It also helps to pay the judge a bribe — politely referred to as a “professional services fee” — to speed the process and guarantee a positive outcome.
“It’s a travesty of the justice system,” said Sen. Pia Cayetano, who said she speaks from experience and who has argued divorce is a basic human right.
The church disagrees. “Human rights are not absolute if they are against the plan of God,” said Monsignor. Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who handles church annulments for the Diocese of San Fernando.
For now, couples wanting out of a marriage can choose between a church annulment or a civil annulment; most opt for the latter. Either way, they must establish that there was some fatal impediment to the marriage from day one: that one or both were too young to get married, were coerced into the marriage, or — most common — were psychologically “incapacitated” at the time of the marriage.
But that presents its own hurdles.
Paolo Yap, 35, a graphic designer in Manila, separated from his then- wife in 2004 and stopped communicating with her entirely two years later.
Three years ago, when he and his new partner decided they wanted to marry, Yap needed an annulment. He hired a lawyer for 300,000 pesos ($ 6,800), but dismissed her when he realized it was going to cost at least twice that — a considerable sum in the Philippines.
Next, he made a deal with a lawyer friend who agreed to take on the case in exchange for Yap’s services as a designer.
A psychologist was hired to certify “mental incapacity.” Yap was found to be “depressive” and “anti- social”; his wife was diagnosed as “narcissistic” and “histrionic.”
The Philippines became the only nation generally to forbid divorce in 2011, when the tiny Mediterranean nation of Malta, in a bitterly contested referendum, voted to allow it.
Philippines law does allow divorce for the country’s Muslim minority — about 11 per cent of the population.
A bill to legalize divorce for all is before the legislature, but does not have the support of President Benigno Aquino III, a practising Catholic who declared divorce a “no- no.”