MANILA The senior bishop in the Philippines' powerful Roman Catholic church denied Friday any suggestion that the church could excommunicate President Benigno Aquino for backing a plan to teach Filipinos about contraception.
The Church is a major social and political force in the poor Southeast Asian country. Its support has been a key factor in the overthrow of two presidents over 25 years and politicians are careful not to offend it.
Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, but condoms and birth control pills are available despite church objections. The bishops have always opposed legislation on offering information about and access to contraception.
Like four out of five Filipinos, Aquino is a Catholic. But he backs a program before Congress on grounds that slowing annual population growth of 2 percent could boost living standards, as one in three residents lives below the poverty line.
Bishop Nereo Odchimar told a Church radio station on Thursday that some forms of contraception were tantamount to abortion and the president had to consider the church's position.
"Abortion is a grave crime, excommunication is attached to this," Odchimar, head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), told Radio Veritas. He said excommunication was a possibility if condoms were distributed to the poor.
But Friday, he denied the church would consider such action against the president.
"While the prevailing sentiment of a number of bishops was that of dismay and frustration over the reported stance of the president regarding artificial contraceptives, imposition of the canonical sanction has not been contemplated by the CBCP," he said in a statement.
Aquino scored a landslide election victory in May, but his popularity would be tested by a stand-off with a Church whose public pronouncements can influence key votes in Congress. Its support was critical in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.
Aquino stood by his support for the program.
"The president is president not only of Roman Catholics but also other faiths," spokesman Edwin Lacierda said. "Responsible parenthood is favorable to all members, all faiths."
Another top member of the 130-member bishops' conference vowed to press on with the campaign to halt the legislation.
"Civil disobedience is a moral option," Monsignor Juanito Figura, CBCP secretary-general, told journalists, without elaborating. "If a law or state policy is against Christian teachings, Catholics are not bound by conscience to obey that."
(Editing by John Mair and Ron Popeski)