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Religion, Politics and Sex: Contesting Catholic Teaching and Transnational Reproductive Health Norms in the Contemporary Philippines


How does religion shape transnational norms and the ways in which they are contested or adopted? Although constructivist international relations theory has made significant strides in understanding the role of norms in shaping political outcomes, there has been little research into how religion affects norm dynamics. This dissertation seeks to address this gap by developing a theory of "religious norms", which I define as standards of proper behavior that arise from actors' religious beliefs. I argue that while religious norms bear many similarities to secular norms, they differ in that believers understand them to emanate from the highest authority of all, that of the sacred. This can lead religious adherents to treat religious norms as having overriding importance, especially when they perceive them to be under attack from competing norms. When this happens, religious adherents can frame the religious norm as highly salient, constitutive of the faith and under threat, a process that I call "defensive sacralization". Defensive sacralization seeks to mobilize believers in opposition to competing norms and to preserve the integrity of religious norms. At the same time, it can stifle theological debate, harden the boundaries of the faith, and raise the costs of accommodating competing norms, leading to increased polarization through a "ratcheting" effect that I call the "sacralization trap".

I study the nature of religious norms, defensive sacralization and the sacralization trap by attempting to explain why the Philippines, which has signed international legal documents affirming reproductive health (including access to contraception) as a human right, has repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would implement these international obligations. I argue that this failure can be attributed to two main factors: first, the domestic political power of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, which enables it to wield an informal veto in issue areas relating to sexual morality; and second, the Church's defensive sacralization of its teachings against contraception, which it perceives to be under threat from transnational reproductive health norms. Through field interviews in the Philippines with activists, theologians, clergy, government officials and scholars, I show how defensive sacralization has sidelined Catholic theologians who believe that the Church may legitimately accommodate the Philippine state's adoption of a national reproductive health policy. By drawing on the history of the Catholic Church's moral theology on contraception and its response to reproductive health norms at major international conferences, I demonstrate how the Church's defensive sacralization in the Philippines is rooted in a broader transnational normative struggle even as it is conditioned by the Philippines' unique local sociopolitical environment.

More broadly, religious norms, defensive sacralization and the sacralization trap provide a new conceptual vocabulary to describe some of the distinctive ways in which religion shapes political processes and outcomes. By apply constructivist international relations theory to the study of religion in politics, this dissertation seeks to begin building a conceptual bridge between the two disciplines.

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