MANILA, Philippines, January 25, 2011 ( – Catholic leaders in the Philippines are cautiously optimistic after the country’s government appears to have backed off of its hard-line stance on the controversial “reproductive health” bill.

Seeking a “win-win solution,” President Benigno Aquino III has opted to advance a “responsible parenthood” bill in its place that he hopes will meet the Catholic Church’s demands.

Aquino insists not only that “family planning” will not be forced on couples, but there will be sanctions should such coercion be attempted.  “And maybe we might also set up natural family planning centers, apart from the other methods to be done by the Department of Health,” the president told reporters.

The president has made his bill a priority on the legislative agenda, along with eleven other bills to be presented to congressional leaders this month.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has vehemently opposed the various versions of the reproductive health bill for the last decade, which have sought to fund the widespread disbursement of contraceptives as part of an effort to reduce the country’s poverty.

But the bishops’ conference now says the government has assured them they won’t be targeting alleged overpopulation in their fight against poverty.  CBCP secretary general Msgr. Juanito Figura said they were told by Health Secretary Enrique Ona that the “responsible parenthood” initiative was not aimed at population control.

“Secretary Ona emphasized that there are no quotas on contraceptives and sterilization services imposed on health workers,” said Msgr. Figura, according to CBCPNews. “In fact, he advised that reports of instances of coercion be brought to his office directly.”

“The government panel also said they respect the religious conviction of couples in their decision regarding the size of their family and spacing in their children,” the priest added.

If the new bill is merely “a rehash of the RH bill, then, definitely the Church will reject,” he said, however.

“He should really explain what he means by responsible parenthood,” Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, the chair of the bishops’ Commission on Family and Life, told CBCPNews.

Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes emphasized the meaning ascribed to the phrase “responsible parenthood” by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae.  “(The principle of) responsible parenthood does not include artificial contraceptives,” he said.

At the same time, the Archdiocese of Manila is responding to renewed efforts at advancing the RH bill by stepping up its promotion of natural family planning.  CBCPNews reports that priests and religious in the Archdiocese will attend a seminar in February to equip them to promote NFP among married couples.

“This is part of our pro-active response to the challenge of fostering a genuine civilization of life and love,” said Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.  “Whether the bill gains passage or not, it remains a pastoral priority of the Church to provide our faithful with the best positive moral alternative available to promote responsible parenthood.”

“As information and formation continue regarding the true nature and intent of the bill, opposition against it increases as well,” he added.