Pope Francis listens to the youth during his visit to the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines last January 18, 2015

Pope Francis embarked on a week-long journey to Asia, his first for this year, as part of his pastoral visit to parts of the world. While he visited two countries in the continent, his visit to the Philippines has been the most anticipated, both by its citizens and outside observers. The Southeast Asian nation, whose around 80 % of its population call themselves Catholics or about 3 % of the worldwide population of the said church, made several statements that people do not see so often to a leader of a religious organization.

On his way to the Philippines, he made a commentary about the recent incident on Charlie Hebdo. While staunchly defending the right to freedom of expression, the pontiff said that a retaliation should be expected when one insults somebody’s belief. He even used very simple metaphor of punching somebody who would insult his own mother. The Pope still warned people that they should not use God’s name to justify violence against persons who attack their religion. The statement reflects how the Pope recognizes human nature in the face of the Western concept of freedom of expression, as the two sometimes do not coincide with each other. This did not go well to advocates of such freedom, contending that the comment suggests that religions should not be open to criticisms and have a special kind of immunity against civil rights.

He also made a statement about climate change, a major issue in the Philippines that has witnessed massive typhoons and other natural calamities in recent years. He said that these irregularities in climate patterns are mostly made by man while saying that nature does not forgive. The issue is a main contention among people who do not believe that climate change is existing and those who recognize the phenomenon and pointing to activities of man as its primary cause. This comment coincides with his plan of releasing an encyclical on climate change due to be published by June this year, just months before the last Conference of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol, an event where countries are supposed to produce a new international agreement to combat climate change.

Another highly discussed event during the visit of Pope Francis in the Philippines was the speech of President Benigno Aquino III as the Pope was welcomed to the Malacañang, the presidential palace of the country. Aquino delivered — to several commentators — an ill-tasted speech, starting from the atrocities of Spanish colonizers and friars during their occupation of the country to the lambasting of Filipino clergymen of the Catholic Church that he accused of being silent during the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the highly unpopular predecessor of Aquino, but are “excessive” critics of him. Many were not pleased with the statement of President Aquino as it was said to show disrespect to the people of the pontiff, liking the former’s action to a child blaming his playmates for a loss.

As he left the country to return to the Vatican, the Pope made another controversial statement about reproductive health, another highly contentious issue in the Philippines. He said that the position of the Catholic Church against artificial contraception does not mean that “Catholics should breed like rabbits” and called having too many children without the means of supporting them “irresponsible.” It could be remembered that the Catholic Church in the Philippines staunchly fought against a legislative measure to introduce reproductive health services to Filipinos, ranging from wider access to artificial contraceptives to adding sex education to the public school system curriculum. The issue was so divisive that the law was contested in the country’s Supreme Court where it was declared “not unconstitutional.” The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines immediately defended the statement, saying that the media should not mislead the public about the statement of the pontiff and that he defended the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.

The changing landscape of the practice of Catholicism in the Philippines did not hamper the enthusiasm of Filipinos in welcoming Pope Francis. As media, both domestic and Western, portray the pontiff as a liberal leader of the Catholic Church,  several followers of the religion still believe that he is essentially conservative. It should also be remembered that the pontiff is a Jesuit, one of the rational and smartest religious order of the Catholic Church, and that the order is known to made several actions that are otherwise different to the general perspective of the rest of the Catholic Church hierarchy. As such, we should expect to hear more out-of-the-box and unconventional statements by Pope Francis during his papacy.

Image source: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines