March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Benigno Aquino faces a huge roadblock in his push to end the poverty weighing on his 106 million people: the Catholic Church.
I was in the predominantly Catholic nation earlier this month when the Vatican named the first non-European as pope in more than 1,200 years. Filipinos rejoiced in the choice of a Latin American pontiff with a passion for helping the poor. One-fifth of Filipinos live in slum conditions even as the economy grows 6.8 percent.
News of Pope Francis’s election came just days before Philippine bishops stymied Aquino’s bid to curb the overpopulation that perpetuates poverty, pressuring the Supreme Court to reject the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, which Aquino signed into law in December. The law, blocked repeatedly since 1998, provides free contraceptives to the poor. Its implicit message is that families shouldn’t have more children than they can realistically afford.
There is still a chance the law may go into effect. The court’s 10-5 vote called for a 120-day restraining order, with hearings set for June 18. But the Philippines has already waited too long to rein in one of the most obvious impediments to higher living standards. As of mid-2012, one in four Filipinos lived on less than $1.25 a day and more than 10 percent of workers have gone abroad for work. It is no coincidence that the Philippines population-growth rate is twice the Asian average.
The archipelago nation is a timely case study of how religion and economic development often don’t mix. The church professes to help those most in need and preaches the gospel of protecting society’s weakest -- poor women and children. How, then, can the bishops who wield such disproportionate power over Southeast Asia’s fifth-biggest economy fight a step that might do much to achieve those goals?
The United Nations is hardly doing the devil’s bidding by arguing that less population growth would reduce Philippine poverty. Nor is former World Bank economist William Easterly being religiously intolerant when he points out that, “the most unprepossessing candidate for the Holy Grail of prosperity is seven inches of latex: a condom.” Although priests or religious leaders of any order should always stay out of politics, that’s especially so when they don’t understand basic economics.
The nexus of God and prosperity has long fascinated economists. In his seminal 1776 tome “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith explored how religion impacts growth, and vice versa. In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx famously concluded: “Religion is the opium of the people.” In 2009, Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary of Harvard University looked at how religion affects behavior in the Internet age. Their conclusion? Countries in which a belief in hell is strong often grow faster than average.
In the Philippines, though, the church’s influence undermines democracy. Recall that in July 2005 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines literally decided whether the nation would experience a coup and whether then President Gloria Arroyo would resign. That made it all too clear how much leverage ordained officials have over elected ones.
It’s beyond irresponsible for church officials to call family planners propagandists who espouse a “culture of death.” Condoms and diaphragms aren’t the same as abortions. Anyone who argues as much to a nation’s people should go to confession. Maybe the new pope will realize how antiquated beliefs about contraception are at odds with his determination to address poverty and environmental degradation.
Religious leaders in other nations also fall prey to misplaced anger. Take Indonesia, an economy beset by endemic corruption. Rather than demanding that public officials root out fraud, religious leaders opt to keep pop performers such as Lady Gaga out of their arenas. In Malaysia, spiritual leaders seem more obsessed with Beyonce’s wardrobe than graft. If only the bishops in the Philippines focused all this energy on the scourge of rent-seeking.
Aquino, let’s remember, hails from one of the nation’s most celebrated dynastic families. His much beloved mother, Corazon Aquino, held power from 1986 to 1992 after the assassination of her opposition-leader husband. And Aquino knew the seriousness of the fight he was picking, enduring threats of ex-communication from the church and a torrent of criticism that ranged from boxing champion Manny Pacquiao to former first lady Imelda Marcos. Aquino’s father was killed for trying to unseat her dictator husband, Ferdinand Marcos.
So why did Aquino choose this battle? Because it’s so necessary. His predecessors, from Arroyo to Joseph Estrada to Fidel Ramos to his mother, avoided the confrontation because they knew their presidencies depended on clerical support. After early successes in battling corruption, Aquino took his high approval ratings out for a ride with family-planning legislation -- only to be impeded by religious dogma.
If you are a credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s Investors Service mulling whether to grant the Philippines an investment-grade rating, you have to wonder how this will shake out. Bishops in the Philippines have every right to guide their flock to a better, more fulfilling life. Thwarting efforts to end poverty isn’t the way to do it.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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