How the Catholic Church Is Helping, and Hurting, the Philippines' Poorest People
The Church is running poverty alleviation programs in communities like Tondo. But it's also fighting against policies that could help them.
A main street in Tondo. All photos by author
Everything about Tondo was built—often haphazardly—with numbers in mind. The district, 8.6 square kilometers in the northwestern reaches of Manila, is home to more than 630,000 people, all of them crammed into a space so tight that Tondo is now one of the most-densely populated places in the world. There are an estimated 70,000 people for every square-kilometer of Tondo. The sheer number of people gives the place an air that it's a city unto its self, albeit the worst possible version of what a city could be.
The electrical lines criss cross overhead like a tangled, black latticework. Manila's traffic is considered one of the worst in the world, but here the roads seemed even more congested. The streets narrow down to tiny alleys barely wide enough for two people to walk without turning sideways.
Tondo is home to some of the Philippines' most-notorious slums, including a massive landfill nicknamed "Smokey Mountain," because the pile of garbage was always on fire. But right there, amid all the chaos and congestion are a collection of ornamental Catholic Churches, each of them unsettling reminders of the Roman Catholic Church's wealth, its efforts to eradicate poverty, and the role it's played in making it all worse in countries like the Philippines.
I hopped out of my car on Tayuman Street in front of an inconspicuous looking building that had local street kids running in and out its doors. It was a Catholic community center, which runs a three-step poverty relief program that includes education and employment. But it all starts with a shower.
The first phase is called kalinga, a portmanteau of the words kain (eat), ligo (shower), and ayos (groom). It's basically a shower and hot meal, explained Father Eddie*, a local priest who is in charge of the center.
"We must show these people something beyond their everyday experience, and that's when I thought of these showers," he told me. "Showering comes with responsibility. When they face themselves in the mirror, they'll think, 'I'm clean now, I can take care of myself.'"
Nothing about what the Church does in Tondo is easy. Residents of the neighborhood have to live with the stigma of living in a community rife with crime and drug abuse. President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs hasn't made it much better. The first drug-related killing to occur under Duterte's watch happened in Tondo. The raids and deaths have continued since then.
Rommel* knew the dark side of life in Tondo well. Before he was able to turn things around with the help of the Church-run community center, Rommel was a hitman, a brutal job that left him wracked with guilt and a heavy addiction to huffing solvents like methylbenzene, or paint thinner. The chemical is known locally as rugby and it's the drug of choice in poorer communities like Tondo.
"My life was a mess," Rommel told me. "[I was] in a job that demanded everything from me."
That's when he turned to rugby to relax, he explained.
"That’s why it’s called ‘solvent’ because it ‘solves the problem’,” Rommel said. “You forget to consider those around you; to feel the hunger, or the cold when it’s raining.”
Now, Rommel works with the Catholic Church to help others in Tondo who might be heading down a similar path.
"The Church gave me a second chance at life by being at the service of others” he told me.
Everyone at the community center saw themselves as doing "God's work," but it wasn't hard to notice the irony of the far greater impact the Church has on places like Tondo. The queues outside the center were long, the crowds claustrophobic. And, statistically, the tremendous number of people living in Tondo has a lot to do with the Church's views on family planning and birth control.
The birth rate in the Philippines is 34 percent higher than in neighboring Indonesia. It's not the highest birth rate in Southeast Asia—that's in Timor-Leste—but it's firmly in the top five. Experts have long argued that high birth rates in the Philippines have played a significant role in holding the country back.
Much of the blame for this high birth rate falls on the shoulders of the Catholic Church—an organization that wields significant influence in a country where one in five is Catholic and also has been a steadfast opponent to family planning and subsidized birth control programs.
“Much of the opposition come from what I call the Roman Catholic hierarchy” Bic Chua, the executive director of Catholics for Reproductive Health, told me. “I say 'hierarchy' to mean the Catholic leadership, like the priests, bishops, and cardinals, since more than 70 percent of Filipino Catholics actually want a family planning program.”
The central government rolled out the Reproductive Health Law in 2012 with the aim of reining-in the country's birth rates through universal country-wide health facilities. That law faced heavy criticism from lobbyist groups, many of them with ties to the Church. In 2015, the matter made it to the Supreme Court where judges actually filed a temporary restraining order against contraceptives, or "abortifacients," as they called them.
By 2016, with a cut in the supply of contraceptives, the government had effectively slashed the budget for the Reproductive Health Law. The restraining order was lifted earlier this year, but it's still seriously hampered the Reproductive Health Law and left it to twist in the wind with little funding and opposition in the Senate.
Then there's cultural challenges it faces. The conservative wing of the Catholic Church views contraception as a "moral evil," that has to be eradicated. It's a lot for pro-contraception groups to combat, especially in a religious country where the Church is one of the main opponents.
"Part of our work is clarifying misconceptions” Chua told me. “We’re trying to tell people that it’s OK to practice family planning and you won’t go to hell!"
I met a woman named Rosa* at the center eating a meal. Her son's dark eyes stared at me as we spoke. "He's half African," she said. "I haven't seen [his father] since that time. My son's never met him either."
One of the realities of life in Tondo is that sex work is often the best way to make ends meet. And in a place where birth control isn't readily available, these women become pregnant with their client's children. By the time the child is born, the father is long gone, often abroad. There's no way to track the man down, and the mothers are left to raise their son or daughter alone.
But it's not just sex workers who find themselves raising more children than they can afford. Overseas foreign workers are a significant part of the Philippines economy. There were an estimated 2.3 million Filipinos working overseas in 2017, according to government data.
When these workers return home, they often sleep with their partners, and, without birth control, pregnancies are common. Abstinence, Chua explained, has not worked in these cases.
"The conservative leadership is too focused on the old canons, making it difficult to overcome obstacles to poverty,” Chua said.
And in places where legal access to birth control isn't readily available, men and women can resort to dangerous alternatives. I heard about a 52-year-old mother of 11 who was facing jail time for terminating three more pregnancies. She used a rubber catheter and punctured her own uterus, bleeding out until the pregnancy ceased to be.
Rosa told me that she felt lucky to only have one child.
"Many of my other friends weren't so lucky," she said.
I asked her how her friends prevented pregnancies. She told me crude methods, like coat hangers and bobby pins, were the most-common choices.
"I wish we had better choices," she said.
I turned and left the center, walking past the gift shop full of crucifixes and Catholic rosaries, and glanced at the pamphlets warning about the dangers of drugs, AIDS, and terminal illness spread across a table. A sticker opposing the Reproductive Health Law was affixed to the front door.
I got back in the car and glanced at the gang of street kids who chased after my car and knocked on the windows. The whole scene left me deeply conflicted. The Church was surely playing an important role in helping the people of Tondo. But its conservative wing was working against the men and women of the community as well. In front of me was the comfortable confines of Metro Manila's wealthier neighborhoods. Behind me, the kids waved goodbye. I watched them as we drove away until they were tiny silhouettes set against the traffic, chasing other cars in the tropical heat.
* Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.