Jul 052014

The leader of the Philippines’ Catholic Church, which routinely denounces abortion and contraception, called for the clergy on Saturday to listen more and condemn less, in the latest sign of a liberal shift in the powerful institution.

Church leaders exert vast influence in the conservative Philippines, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism and the only state apart from Vatican that still outlaws both divorce and terminations.

But with many modern Filipino Catholics embracing attitudes that were once considered taboo or frowned upon, and the more conciliatory tone of the Vatican under Pope Francis, there are signs that the Philippine church is softening its stance.

Speaking at an annual assembly of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, where he is president, Archbishop Socrates Villegas said a change of tone would be a fitting welcome for the pope, who is expected to visit the Philippines next year.

“Perhaps we can reconsider our approach to solving the problems of family and life by listening more to the wounded and the grieving broken homes rather than condemning divorce and abortion and contraception at every opportunity,” Villegas said.

“Perhaps we can reach out to more people by stretching our minds and lowering our fences and listening… without being judgemental or punitive.”

In 2012 President Benigno Aquino signed a law requiring government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, in a major defeat for the church, which fought a 15-year campaign against any form of family planning laws.

The law took effect this year after the Supreme Court ruled against a church-backed legal challenge.

The Catholic Church, which counts over 80 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million population as members, led street protests denouncing the law as “evil”, and at one point threatened Aquino with excommunication.

The pope last year said the church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and has set about creating “a poor church for the poor”, in a major shift from his predecessor.

Bishop Oscar Cruz, a former president of the Catholics Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said earlier this year he expected divorce, abortion and even same-sex marriage could eventually be legalised in the Philippines.

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