Slowly but surely, the bishops of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church have been preparing a campaign that will confront President Rodrigo Duterte over ‘extrajudicial killings’ – an issue which they, along with Duterte’s other opponents, have velcroed to his War on Drugs.
For months now, like generals in a war room, the clerical hierarchy has been weighing its strategies and marshalling its troops in the field ready for an all-out assault on the president and his cause. Its high command has said they wanted to give the president’s methods a chance, but – if truth be told – it’s more likely they didn’t know how to fight him. Now they believe they can take him on.
“The Church right now is asserting its influence, that’s why in the coming months the Church will be at the forefront in leading against extrajudicial killings”. That declaration, last week, came from Jerome Secillano, public affairs chief for the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the country’s Catholic episcopacy comprising 131 active and honorary bishops.
“(The War on Drugs) is not any more in accord with the legal processes, and the moral norms are being violated and so now is the time for the Church to speak up,” Secillano said.
The Church says it’s tried quiet diplomacy through private discussions with Duterte and his top aides. That failed it claims. What in fact it’s been doing, however, is to stage a series of sporadic sorties against the administration to asses the grass-roots support it could muster in an all-out battle for the hearts and minds of the people.
There was certainly very little that was quiet or diplomatic about a pastoral letter read out in the churches of the Lingayen-Dagupan (L-D) archdiocese on Sunday, 7 August last year – just 38 days after Duterte took office. From that we must conclude that five weeks was the limit of the grace period the Church had allowed for Duterte to deal with the drugs plague. Penned by L-D Archbishop and CBCP President, Socrates Villegas, an outspoken critic of Duterte’s narcotics war, the letter held little back. Clearly referencing Duterte and his anti-drugs campaign, here are a couple of extracts.
“Is not humanity going down to the dregs when bloodthirsty humans encourage the killers and ask for more blood? …There is a little voice of humanity in us that I believe is disturbed by the killings; but that voice of disturbed humanity is drowned out by the louder voice of revenge or silenced by the sweet privileges of political clout”.
Villegas, whom we understand has a cordial relationship with Vice President (and avowed Duterte opposition leader) Leni Robredo, however, was one of just a few Church leaders who pressed the case publically against the War on Drugs.
But the priesthood hasn’t been sitting around idly. They’ve been printing posters put up outside their churches denouncing the extrajudicial killings. They’ve been documenting killings and counselling families of the slain to build a case against the administration and law enforcement. Meanwhile, its priests are involved with a number of organisations calling for justice – among them ‘Network Against Killings in the Philippines (NAKP); an unapologetic anti-Duterte group.
Here’s an extract from an NAKP November press release. “President Duterte … and his top officials incite and encourage law enforcers to commit even more killings and even more abuses … The Duterte government encourages these abuses and even promises protection to the perpetrators, taking an already egregious human rights situation to a whole new and more dangerous level”.
At Christmas, the historic Baclaran Church in Parañaque, Metro Manila, the National Shrine to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, displayed a series of large bill-board-size illuminated photographs showing dead drug-war victims lying in streets. Around the same time Mass-goers at St Joseph the Patriarch church at San Pedro, Laguna were told that before entering they must first sign a petition calling for Duterte’s impeachment.
From the responses which they received to these and other initiatives, the Church believes that it can now meet Duterte and his forces in the field. Its aim is to severely weaken Duterte’s base by splitting his supporters. It wants to wrest back influence over the people and their political representatives that once bent unquestioningly to its will. In short they want their power back and the spoils of the victory it seeks will be to reinstate the Church’s voice in the affairs of state.
But this is a very different presidential opponent to the previous two which the Church took on and where it prevailed. Ferdinand Marcos was an ailing man and tired after 21 years in power; Joseph Estrada had been outed for mass plunder of the public purse. Both men had lost credibility with the people and had become isolated. Duterte, however, is a very different proposition.
Furthermore, Corazon Aquino – the woman the bishops backed to replace Marcos – was an easy sell to the people. The widow of a charismatic clan chief, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, assassinated on the tarmac of Manila Airport just three years earlier, her elevation played into the swollen emotion of anti-Marcos feeling. With Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo it was even easier. She was Estrada’s vice president and constitutionally his successor. All the Church needed to do was back her publically and give its imprimatur; which it did.
We’re certain that there are some members of the CBCP who would like to become queen-makers for a third time, by lending their weight to Robredo – constitutionally, she’s in the same position as Macapagal-Arroyo was when they ensured her coronation. But that has as much chance of resonating with the people as suggesting Dracula runs the Philippine Blood Center.
Also, back then the bishops were headed by Jaime Lachica Cardinal Sin, Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila and de facto Primate of the Philippines. Iconic, larger than life, Sin was a politico-religious firebrand who believed in liberally mixing the affairs of Church and State – while putting Church interests first. In those regards, he has no equal in today’s Bishops’ Conference.
But the CBCP and its ranks of priests have bigger problems with Duterte. Marcos and Estrada had lost the people’s trust; Duterte, on the other hand, has more trust than either had at the height of their popularity, never mind when they’d fallen from grace. They were wounded by shame; Duterte is idolised.
His machine, too, is far more formidable than that of the bishops. Certainly they have a vast reach across their 16 ecclesiastical provinces which support 2,940 parishes and thousands of churches, chapels and Mass centres. But these are different times. Duterte’s pulpit is on social media and with that the bishops can’t compete. Duterte’s supporters are a broad church; they’re faithful to God and they’re faithful to him. And they see no conflict. Indeed, many believe Duterte has been sent by God to purge their land of drugs and crime. Many, too, believe that the Church has failed in protecting the flock. And so religion and morality as espoused by the clergy will be a poor weapon in this war.
Make no mistake, Filipino Catholics – 83.4 million of them – are devoted to Jesus. He’s their Saviour; of that they have no doubt. They love God above all else. Increasingly, however – and the bishops are well aware of this – their love of the Church, and more particularly its hierarchy, has continued to plummet. And so today, the Church has a serious image problem and a standing in society that is in inverse proportion to that of Duterte. His approval rating with the people hovers above 80%.
This doesn’t mean the people don’t need the Church; they do. They need to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, they need to unburden themselves of sin by confessing to a priest, they need the structure of the Mass Liturgy, they need to hear the Word of God, they need to kneel before the altar and pray as a community. They need to be there to sing and give gratitude to God and to ask for His help. These needs are as strong today as they ever were.
And there’s no getting away from that. Jeepneys – a Philippine icon and the country’s most popular road-passenger transport – emblazoned with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin and messages proclaiming ‘To God be the Glory’, ‘Jesus Leadeth Me’, ‘Jesus is Lord’ are an ever-present feature in towns and on roads right across the archipelago.
Probably the most colourful vehicles on Earth, their paintwork provides a strong visual aid to the country’s indomitable religious spirit. This isn’t artwork for artwork’s sake; it represents the abiding thoughts of the commuting Catholic public. And so choose how low the people’s respect for their Church’s leaders falls, their faith and religious devotion will endure.
And that’s why the bishops’ quest is a fool’s quest because. The people have their faith and they have their leader and anyone coming between the two is doomed to failure. Far from restoring power and influence to the Church, a bishops’ battle with Duterte could erode it even further. Perhaps irreparably.