The Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines finds itself between a rock and a hard place over President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on illegal drugs. The rock is Duterte himself; he is not going to acquiesce to any request from the bishops for law enforcement to soften its stance in prosecuting this war. The hard place is the people – or at least the vast majority of them; 84% according to the most recent survey – who solidly back the president’s efforts in ridding the country of the narcotics pandemic.
The political power of the Philippine Catholic clergy is not what it was. This is a body that brought about regime change twice. It helped to remove two presidents from power – Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. It is also a body which, up until quite recently, had a hand in shaping government policy on everything from logging and fuel-pricing to education, housing and national security.
This time around, however, and on this issue, the clergy knows that the political terrain is very different. In the coups against Marcos and Estrada, the bishops were able to tap into a groundswell of opposition; people’s movements had already gathered; the clergy merely needed to galvanise them – which it did; very effectively. Under former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the bishops operated a quid-pro-quo arrangement – political concessions for ecclesiastical support. That worked well until the Church started to read the pulse of the nation more accurately – that the people wanted her to go. It stopped short of endorsing calls for her impeachment but withdrew its support once it saw that continuing to prop her up would invite the people’s anger.
None of that, however, describes the situation today. In fact, it’s the complete reverse of that. The people are behind their president; the war on drugs is partly why they elected him in the first place. They want to keep this president for ever. Thus, to go against the people’s will would not only potentially put the Church on the wrong side of history; it could deliver a critical blow to the Church’s authority vis-à-vis its congregation – an authority that has already been considerably diminished. During the last administration, it fought in vain to prevent the passage in 2012 of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act – legislation which, among other provisions, paved the way for access to artificial birth control. The Church’s campaign completely ignored all the evidence that suggested that the people supported the legislation.
And so, the question the bishops have been asking themselves is this. Do they again ignore what all the polls are saying – that public backing for Duterte’s drugs war is overwhelming –take a stand against it, and risk the ire of the flock? Or do they keep quiet and let others take that stand – the likes of civil-liberties groups, NGO watchdogs and foreign governments? Right now, it seems they have gone for the latter option. All indications are that they would only be emboldened to speak out forcibly against the war if there was a strong public shift away from Duterte’s hard-line policy. And that looks extremely unlikely.
And what about the Church’s public position on capital punishment? Of course it will oppose its reintroduction; but will it stir the emotions of the people to get behind it as it has in the past? There will be many homilies about God’s Day of Judgement; the sanctity of life; forgiveness and redemption. There might well be protests from church groups. But open opposition to the government to the extent of calling people out onto the streets? Unlikely. Times have changed since the ecclesiastical reign of Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila and de facto Primate of the Philippines who became the queenmaker of Corazon Aquino after the toppling of Marcos, and of Arroyo after the impeachment of Estrada.
To date, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – 131 active and honorary bishops representing the hierarchy of the country’s Catholic episcopacy – has issued no statement condemning the war on illegal drugs. In a measured way, it has urged that due process of law be followed and that unlawful killings be fully investigated. But that’s as far as it’s gone.
The CBCP also knows that if it criticises the crackdown on illegal drugs, it leaves itself wide open to being vilified for standing by throughout the terms of three presidents while this scourge built to a scale where today there are an estimated 4 million addicts in the country.
Was the Church, with its network of parishes across some 60 dioceses, oblivious of what was happening? Through their pastoral work, didn’t the parish priests see what was going on? The devastation that crystal meth, or shabu, was wreaking on families and communities under its shepherdship? Didn’t they hear the same stories of rape and violence; of children going without food so papa or mama didn’t have to go without drugs? Didn’t they see, or at least hear about, kids sniffing toluene-based solvents or slurping cheap cough syrup to get high? Peddling their bodies to get enough pesos for a hit? According to Department of Social Welfare data, half of the country’s street children – eight to 20 year olds in a population of somewhere north of 200,000 – have sniffed glue. Where was the coordinated outcry from the pulpit? Hard to believe that the priests and parish workers could have missed all that.
Of course, sporadic efforts have been made in parishes here and there to help the addicted and their families; but where was the Church in leading a campaign for rehabilitation centres? Where were their petitions to the government to do something? They had no problem lobbying Congress to prevent industrialisation, for example; or blocking foreign companies from setting up job-creating enterprises close to their dioceses.
And couldn’t some of the Church’s own vast wealth have been used to ease the lives of the drug victims? Isn’t that, after all, part of the shepherd’s role? To care for his lambs; the ones that have gone astray?
In short, the bishops and the priesthood are no more in a position to criticise this war than members of past administrations who allowed the pestilence to spread and run rampant. It’s believed that there are now around 800 barangays in the Philippines which have a serious drug-use problem. That didn’t happen overnight. And it wasn’t exactly a secret either.
The Church is being politically prudent. It cannot win over the hearts and minds of its parishioners, much less lead them to its own cause. Furthermore, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State does not get involved in a country’s internal affairs; it leaves that to the individual national bishops’ conferences, in this case the CBCP. In other words, any initiative to challenge Duterte would have to come from the Philippine bishops themselves.
And so the Philippine Church – with a congregation of some 82 million Catholic Filipinos – and more particularly the CBCP, will tread very carefully around Duterte’s war on drugs. It will not call him out and will not want to be seen encouraging opposition against it in Congress. For not only would such a strategy likely lose it the morality argument; it could irreparably fracture the edifice of the Church and lose its flock in the process.