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Clerics exercise caution with soft approach

Philippines Roman Catholic Church is having to adjust to the realities of a Duterte government

The Philippines Roman Catholic Church is having to adjust to the realities of a Duterte government, replacing its often heated rhetoric of the past with quiet and measured diplomacy.

It is another indication that the Church is coming to terms with the fact – at least on the surface – that its once indomitable authority has waned and that the power of the clergy which has helped to shape Filipino society for the best part of 450 years, is undergoing a partial eclipse by a new set of social principles that turn parts of Catholic dogma on its ear.

Last week, one of the country’s most senior church leaders, Cebu Archbishop-Emeritus, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, visited the presidential palace of Malacañang to offer an olive branch to President Duterte who, shortly after his 9 May election victory, had scolded the institution and its bishops for culpability in the deplorable state of Philippine society.

Labelling the Church “the most hypocritical institution,” he has accused bishops of benefitting from public cash while poor families go without food and medicine. He has alluded to clergy who had approached his office when he was the Mayor of Davao City for special favours.

Of the Church’s stand against artificial contraception, he has said it was time to deal with the problems of overpopulation – something which none of his predecessors had had the will to do, deferring instead to the bishops. And he has attacked politicians of all parties who have failed to challenge Catholic doctrine which has resulted in abject poverty resulting from an upwardly spiraling birthrate where families of 10 children are not uncommon.

“I’m a Christian, but I’m a realist so we have to do something with our overpopulation,” he said.  “I will defy the opinion or the belief of the Church”.

None of this, however, featured in Cardinal Vidal’s three-hour meeting with the president. There was no discussion about extrajudicial killings, the possible reintroduction of the death penalty, nor the issue of birth control – three topics which the priesthood had raised during the election campaign in their effort to halt Duterte’s presidential bid as they made their political pitch from pulpits across the reach of their parishes.

But not only did they fail; they barely made a dent in his numbers as the people delivered him the presidency with a landslide of votes. At his victory announcement, Duterte said that the election had been “a referendum between me and the Catholic Church. Look,” he asked, “were they able to stop me?”

And that grim realisation for the Church, has caused it to take stock of its position in Philippine society and not seek confrontation with a man who has brought whole swathes of the 80+million-strong Catholic congregation to a secular conversion.

And one more thing that has given the bishops pause for thought; Duterte’s has warned them not to test him. If they do, he will name churchmen who have wives and girl friends – an allegation the Church refutes – revelations which Duterte believes will cause “the Catholic Church to explode”. One thing is for sure, Duterte will not be allowing the bishops to meddle in the affairs of state.

So why was the country’s most senior cardinal at the palace? According to Vidal, he “opened the door of communication with his government,” saying that the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the episcopal hierarchy of the Philippine Church – and the country’s elected representatives “need to have a good relationship with each other”. He also wanted to pour oil on troubled waters and assure the president that the Church would be praying for him throughout his presidential term. What they did not talk about were the issues that deeply trouble the Church. They were never raised.

But what we also know is that Vidal stopped by Malacañang after attending the CBCP’s 113th plenary assembly at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila. The plenary, a twice yearly gathering, is the highest governing body of the bishops’ collegiate. Attended by up to 90 active members and 38 retired members, the assembly receives the annual reports from the CBCP’s 35 commissions, committees and offices. And at this particular plenary, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) reported to the bishops on its final assessment of the May elections.

We can safely assume then that Duterte’s policies will have been thoroughly scrutinised by this body and, no doubt, discussed more privately among the bishops who remain determined to turn back the tide on reproductive health legislation. Priests vs parenting in Act of conflict

We also know that just before he went to the palace, he paid a call on Vice President Leni Robredo. What they talked about is not known, though she is a far more sympathetic ear than Duterte on issues that concern the bishops.

It would seem then that Vidal’s role was an ambassadorial one; or a means of testing the waters; or, as Vidal said, of opening the door for communication – a door which the Church knows can be very smartly closed.

Senior though Vidal is, however, the chances are that the visit was not his decision alone. More likely, a number of senior clerics agreed to it. Furthermore, uncharacteristically, this plenary session did not issue any statement with regard to the new government – its first opportunity to do so. That again suggests that the CBCP is treading lightly. The bishops have had no qualms in the past of openly criticising presidents and their policies – and these policies with respect to law-and-order punishment and artificial birth control are as contentious as any the Church has been presented with.

The Philippine Catholic Church – the bishops – are now in a new normal; one that threatens not just its authority, but one that, if it’s not handled very carefully, could do it irreparable damage.