(Before Dr. Cabral, there was a Dr. Flavier, one of the best secretaries of Health) 
MANILA -— One of the most decisive acts of an otherwise slow-moving goverment in the Philippines under President Fidel Ramos has been to appoint a health secretary, Juan Flavier, who is willing to do battle with the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of contraception. 

Mr. Flavier is not a professional politician. He made his name as a doctor bringing public health to the villages, and was thus a surprise choice for the health portfolio. But his zeal and the flair he has shown for publicity have got under the skin of the Catholic Church, which claims the adherence of 80 percent of the 61 million Filipinos. 

Church groups have been calling for Mr. Flavier's dismissal, and the country's bishops have issued a pastoral letter condemning the promotion of condom use as encouraging promiscuity. 

Catholic leaders organized a rally and vigil recently in central Manila to defend "family values." To the church, the issue is one of morality. But supporters of the health secretary say he is seeking to protect the population against the spread of AIDS. He also wants to reduce the high birthrate in the Philippines, which many blame for its economic failure, all the more glaring in contrast to its neighbors' success. 

So far, the Philippines has only 368 known HIV cases. But the government believes that the true figure may be closer to 35,000. Mr. Flavier fears an epidemic of Thai proportions, and with good reason. The nation is vulnerable because of the 2 million Filipinos who work overseas or who have migrated and return periodically. Many males working abroad have access to sex only through prostitutes. The Philippines itself has a thriving commercial sex industry and a large foreign tourismbusiness, some of which is sex-oriented. 

The head-in-the-sand attitude of the Catholic Church to condom promotion for AIDS prevention is likely to hurt the innocent - monogamous women who contract the disease from spouses. Cases in the Philippines show that most contracted AIDS from heterosexual relations, not drug use or homosexual behavior. Most victims were women.
The church senses that it is on difficult and unpopular ground in relying on chastity for AIDS prevention. So it is attacking the condom drive as the thin end of a wedge "to promote acceptability of the condom for contraception." It is right.
Mr. Flavier is doing just that, much to the delight of those who argue that the nation needs lower birth and abortion rates. Abortion is banned by the Philippine constitution, which protects life from the point of conception. But surveys indicate that at least 15 percent of women have had abortions. 

The country has long had a goal of reducing rapid population growth, but this was not backed by active family-planning promotion. 

Church supporters argue that fertility is falling with urbanization and income growth. They also maintain that the Philippines is less crowded than other Asian countries, such as South Korea. But the decline in the annual rate of population increase has been slow. The rate recently had to be revised upward to almost 2.5 percent, from 2.3. And the five-year target has had to be raised to 2.2 percent, from 1.9. 
Even if achieved, that would only be the level reached by South Korea 25 years ago and by Thailand a decade ago. The Philippines lacks the industrial base to absorb labor that Korea had then, or the large spaces available in Thailand. All other East Asian countries accepted that rapid reduction in the birthrate was a precondition for fast growth of real incomes. The Philippines did not. 

There are plenty of other causes for the abysmal economic performance of the Philippines, many of them related to an ethical vacuum in business as well as government. The church has played a vital and positive role in helping to restore and maintain democracy, fighting for the rights of the poor against rapacious, quasi-feudal interests and exposing rampant high-level criminality and corruption. 

Church institutions are important to a nation sorely lacking strong national institutions. The Philippines can ill afford to add a church-state battle to its other woes. The Catholic assault on Mr. Flavier threatens to alienate those elements in and around President Ramos who are most dedicated to reform, modernization and honest government.